Going into the beginning of this Chicago Red Stars season, common knowledge ran with the idea that the first five games were going to be hard. Sam Kerr, the brand-new centerpiece of Chicago’s offense, was always slated to be off the roster until the end of Australia’s World Cup Qualifying in the Asian Cup (many congrats to Kerr and the Matildas in a successful qualifying campaign, and a second-place finish).
The going got progressively more tough however as Chicago lost starter after starter from either USWNT play or pre-season injury. The Red Stars got some reprieve when Yuki Nagasato returned from the hamstring injury that left her hobbled for the first few weeks of regular season, but they lost Stephanie Mccaffrey to illness, and the injuries to Casey Short, Julie Ertz, and Vanessa Dibernardo proved to be more long-term.
It then felt somewhat poetic when, in Chicago’s 3rd game in 8 days, starting center-back Sam Johnson picked up a tweak in pre-game warmups tonight and had to be scratched, bringing Taylor Comeau off an already very short Red Stars bench to take outside-back duties from Sarah Gorden, who moved inside to cover Johnson’s spot. While Sky Blue FC wasn’t the most formidable opponent, with no goals to their name up to this point in the season, it looked like the wheels were finally going to fall off at Toyota Park.
However, Chicago wrung out every drop of energy they had to earn themselves a point tonight, drawing Sky Blue 1-1 on a magnificent shross from Sofia Huerta in just the first minute of play. Huerta collected the ball from a simple pass back off the end line at the top right corner of Sky Blue’s box, and sent a ball in that looked intended for runners to get heads on. The ball however carried into Sky Blue’s goal, over the outstretched hands of Kailen Sheridan.
Intentional or not, the Red Stars then had a lead to protect, despite their best efforts to distance themselves from their opponents. Nagasato had a very active game up front for Chicago, nearly getting the Red Stars another goal in the 31st minute, only denied by the crossbar. Huerta also continued her onslaught towards the Sky Blue goal, but the first half would ultimately end with just the 1-0 advantage.
This is where, as Rory Dames admitted in his post-game comments last Wednesday, the grueling week of games was always going make Chicago legs heavier, and the lead more difficult to maintain. Sky Blue tonight was playing only its third game, in contrast to Chicago’s fifth, and they’re going into their second bye of the season next week. While the precision of play still favored the Red Stars, New Jersey worked their way back into the match through sheer force of minutes.
It was disappointing when the Sky Blue equalizer came in the 78th minute, courtesy of a deflected shot from the top of the box from Savannah McCaskill (who is a frontrunner for Rookie of the Year in this still young season), but while it cost Chicago the full three points, it shouldn’t discount the work that this team has done in their first five games.
Players like Sarah Gorden, tasked with something incredibly difficult tonight, have stepped up remarkably and kept Chicago with only one loss to their name before the return of some of the marquee leaders of this team. Sam Kerr is expected to play against Washington next week, and Julie Ertz might be available off the bench. After tonight, one can only walk away with a tip of the cap to Chicago’s depth and organization, and no short measure excitement for what’s to come.