Portland Thorns FC 2 Heath 60’, Sinclair 69’
Chicago Red Stars 2 Kerr 44’, 49’
As I watched the Red Stars let a two-goal lead against the Thorns slip into a 2-2 draw on Saturday night, I kept flashing back to the first time these two teams met this season. That particular match ended 3-2 in Portland’s favor, after Chicago put quality play together and then made some significant mistakes that pulled all three points out from under them - but the Thorns were beatable, on a night where all the stars aligned.
This game was almost like that one, but it also wasn’t. The team presented the expected amount of rotation at the beginning of the match, re-inserting Yuki Nagasato into the starting lineup and giving Danny Colaprico a full half off in favor of the more physical presence of Nikki Stanton throughout. The Red Stars also swapped Arin Gilliland and Casey Short from right to left back (and vice versa), due to Tobin Heath’s presence on the right side one would assume - it’s not Short’s natural spot on the field, but when you’re combatting a player with the talent of Heath, it makes sense that you want your best natural defender on that side of the field.
And for the entirety of the first half of play, Chicago legitimately looked like a better team than the Portland Thorns at home. Short and Gilliland kept things tight enough to hold Heath and Hayley Raso at bay, and gave Morgan Brian and Vanessa Dibernardo enough room in the midfield to spring Kerr and Nagasato up front. Accordingly, and to their credit, the Red Stars then served up a couple of beauties in the first 50 minutes of the match.
In the 44th, Gilliland did an impressive job of tracking back opposite of Ellie Carpenter, stalling the Thorns attach just enough to push Portland into some wobbly possession in the midfield. A quick strip-and-go between Kerr and Nagasato sprang Kerr up the pitch, albeit in a one-on-two situation that with any lesser of a player would result in a wasted chance. However, we’ve got Sam Kerr, and she tripped the Portland defense over themselves before catching Adrianna Franch on completely the wrong foot to put Chicago up 1-0 right before the halftime whistle.
Not long after play resumed in the second half, Kerr struck again - her 12th of the season, putting her up front in the race for the 2018 Golden Boot. A sustained Red Stars attack ran through the Portland defense primarily due to the tenacious play of Dibernardo (who has quietly had a fantastic season upon her return after a significant injury early in the year). She dribbled through the Thorns back-line, had the ball slightly cleared back to her, and she was able to send a fantastic cross in to Kerr to give the striker a brace on the match and her 12th of the season.
But here is where the Thorns bend the universe to their will, and the Red Stars acquiesce. Call it tactics, call it gamesmanship, call it luck, but Portland is very good at getting results from games that aren’t going their way. And Chicago has a history of ceasing to believe in their own quality the moment they get a decent lead on a stronger team.
The Alyssa Naeher punch that led to Heath’s goal, and the acre of space given to Heath to send in a cross that’d stand as Christine Sinclair’s follow-up equalizer felt inevitable, but the Red Stars really need to believe that it didn’t have to be.
Within the development of this Chicago team, the Thorns don’t have to win games like this every time, and while the draw could seem fair on paper, soccer is the kind of sport where talent and opportunity win out every once in a while. I’m still waiting for the Red Stars to get that kind of a win. I’m so proud of them, and I also want so much more.
And the post-season race is certainly not lost! Orlando need to drop points against North Carolina, and then the Red Stars have the opportunity to take control with a win against the Pride next weekend.
After tonight, I feel comfortable calling this Red Stars team better than any Chicago NWSL squad that came before it. I just hope they pull off a result that affirms that statement next week.
The Chicago Red Stars (7W 10D 4L, 31pts, 4th in the NWSL standings) continue their sprint to the postseason next Saturday when they travel to Orlando.