Chicago Red Stars 2 Naughton 62’, Dibernardo 70’
Utah Royals 0
It would be understandable to look at the taking on of the Utah Royals at Toyota Park tonight as the first real test of the post-Huerta Red Stars, and for much of the 90 minutes played on Saturday, Chicago looked very up to the task.
While none of the players involved in the massive three-team midseason trade ended up playing (nor Morgan Brian, who was a late scratch from the starting lineup), the Red Stars showed that they still have the ability to win now, against a team known for its defensive stability.
That narrative played out for much of the first half; Casey Short, getting her first start of the year, found herself frequently isolated on her side, but she took on the Royals midfield with aplomb. Alyssa Naeher was frequently called upon to hold her back-line together, and early in the match barely came up with a double save to keep the Royals off the scoreboard.
And, for one more week at least, Utah’s scoring woes continued, despite solid play from Katrina Gorry in midfield and Amy Rodriguez up top. One has to wonder if the team is simply waiting to get some of their more significant pieces back (namely, Kelley O’Hara and the incoming Christen Press) rather than addressing the personnel issues with a change in tactics. Regardless, the first half of the match ended in a physical scoreless draw.
The second half, however, reminded Chicago supporters just how good this team can be, and not just in the half-steps and crunch time of much of the first half of the season. The first glimpse of brilliance came from a Danny Colaprico free kick, off a Utah handball. Colaprico curved the ball into the box, and it was actually Katie Naughton who notched her first career goal as the target of the cross. The goal was definitely a new development, and if the Red Stars are going to continue to sit Julie Ertz back in defense in the absence of newly-traded Sam Johnson, having more options as set-piece targets up front is going to be huge for the squad.
And then, Vanessa Dibernardo got into the game. Dibernardo’s long road to recovery has left the Red Stars somewhat aimless in weeks past, and if one could award an MVP to simply the loss in a players absence, Dibernardo would win every time. She had a great moment in the last gasp of last weeks game, and with a little bit more time tonight (she was subbed in in the 66th), she did something truly special.
Dibernardo sent a ball out to Sam Kerr from the midfield, springing the forward to advance the ball. Kerr then saw Dibernardo following up at the top of the six, and crossed the ball back for the midfielder to collect and strike it home. It was the kind of play that the Red Stars have been missing all year, and it points to what the original vision for Kerr in particular was in the first place.
Don’t want to get too high on one win, but after the week the Red Stars have had, this one felt really good. If this team can get and stay healthy, they might actually really have a shot. And that’s good enough for now.