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On Press, Huerta, And All The Futures That Never Happened

Even when you know the way it’s gonna blow, it’s hard to get around the wind

Photo courtesy of Chicago Red Stars
Daniel Bartel/isiphotos.com

So, it finally happened. Christen Press is coming back to the NWSL, Sofia Huerta is moving on to Houston, and Chicago is looking towards the future. One could call it a surprise, but that’d be disingenuous to every person that’s followed this team for the better part of the NWSL’s six years of existence.

The final move, a year in the making, was a concession Chicago was reluctant to make. Admitting that Huerta, after all this time, needed things that the Red Stars wouldn’t give her was a painful enough idea to all involved that the situation lingered long past the natural boiling point, resulting in hurt feelings and massive changes.

The fallout, as with most emotional exchanges, is still ongoing, and it’s hard to comment on what this is all going to mean in the years to come with objective eyes. So the impulse is rather to take a look back and reflect on what being a supporter of the Chicago Red Stars has come to embody over time.

While brought up frequently in national discussion, it’s hard to capture the cluster of 20th century architecture and wide-open spaces that make up the Midwest. And despite what you might hear, Chicago is still the apex of that ideal, with industrial-age skyscrapers downtown, mid-century high-rises up north, and acres and acres of room to breathe on either side. Too many buildings and too much room sometimes, but the parts are so beautiful that when someone can’t realize the sum you take it more than a little bit personally. The lake might not be an ocean, but boy can you see for miles.

And it feels like it lives in your blood, that sum of those parts, as you develop a sort of immunity to the eventual process of the people you care about leaving for the idea of objectively greener grass. It plays out in every snapshot of this current moment in sports: Chicago’s the only NWSL presence left, Columbus Crew SC is nothing more than an animated ghost, Elena Delle Donne is back from recovery in D.C., Jimmy Butler’s up in Minnesota, Lebron suffered til he couldn’t stand it anymore, then came back and suffered again (and again, and again).

And now both Christen Press and Sofia Huerta have successfully maneuvered their way out of Chicago. At some point you start to wonder where everybody went; we joked it was “Post Traumatic Press Disorder” in the quieter days between the first Portland match of 2018 and today.

The story of Press in particular is still an angular one; a national team talent that did her time, finally released to control her own destiny. When she arrived in the NWSL in 2014, no one was all that convinced she wanted to come back from Sweden in the first place, answering the call of US Soccer before the 2015 World Cup. But when she did arrive she was all in.

She was sometimes kind of quiet in the bigger moments, the alternative striker if you will, but she was ours. Sure, she’d get isolated from time to time, but when you’d watch her absolutely school center-backs into foolishness, it was a specific point of pride. She guided a hodgepodge group of kids into playoff contenders, and if no one else got it, Chicago did. The underrated sniper, the European-style American, the marksman.

And as a leader, Press showed her teammates how to be ambitious— sometimes more so than the Red Stars were ultimately ever comfortable with. A lot was made about the relationship between Press and Huerta, always perhaps more successful in each other’s absence than when together, but affecting each other all the same. Sofia Huerta: a top-tier talent that fell outside the US’ limited development system, took her time, and found a way back in, all other roads be damned.

And out of possibly everyone who’s ever played for this Red Stars organization, Huerta bought into the spirit of the city the most. As a fan of a particular club in the NWSL, the regional understanding every year is that teams get their players for a couple of months in the summer, and you can only hope they enjoy your city as much as you do, until they move on. Little things pull them away all the time, such is the nature of this fragile league, but you always hope that despite the odds these players will see a community worth investing in.

Sofia Huerta did that. She turned into a Chicago kid, spending off-time here, putting down roots, investing in her team and herself, doing all of the right things. And it still didn’t work out. In the end, you have to call it what it is. Giving the end a name is both tragic and freeing, but ultimately it just starts the cycle over again. Chicago invests in the future, sometimes the future gets too ambitious, and eventually players will have to walk on.

And moves like these tend to open up all the existential questions one considers when writing about the NWSL. Does it make sense to invest in particular players? Or should you ride or die for your team, even if you aren’t sure your team is the one making the right choice? Is the NWSL simply a working venue to develop USWNT greatness, or should we all want something more for this league? Is it ridiculous to buy into an ethos when it’s been rejected by those you respect? What, ultimately, does this league owe to its players, and what do those players owe to their fans?

And what does this sport owe to players like Taylor Comeau and Sam Johnson, who fought their way onto Chicago’s squad through damn hard work, built entire careers for themselves in one spot, only to be included as package deals with more prominent teammates? It’s true that they will probably never be the new cornerstones of American WoSo Exceptionalism, but it’s good people like them carrying the banner every time the stars step away that makes a club worth rooting for. They made Chicago better, but perhaps more importantly they made the Red Stars who they are, and that loss is worth more than what you see on paper.

Looking back, when the Red Stars slid into fourth place at the end of 2017, and bombed out of their semi-final against North Carolina, Chicago was waiting for condemnation that never quite came. As the frustration passed, and gave way to sadness, the real and only closure Chicago was ever going to get came from Christen Press herself, in one last Instagram post. The image was a picture of the striker, sitting next to packed suitcases in her empty River North high-rise apartment, the sunset over the lakeshore in the distance. The caption, simple: “I will miss you Chicago. I wish we could have played better. We all wanted so much more. What a wonderful team we had.”

We all wanted so much more. What a wonderful team we had. And the cycle goes on.