After what should’ve been their final home match of 2018 on August 10th, the Chicago Red Stars battled with the league leaders and shield winners North Carolina Courage.
After a trying first 45 minutes that saw them go down 1-0 into halftime, instead of folding against the Courage as most teams have done this season, the Red Stars played on - at times stronger - and pulled off the equalizer and a draw on the evening.
It’s a game that has set the tone for the Red Stars current playoff push, and after a pair of matches among the smoky skies of the Pacific Northwest, Chicago finds themselves in the top four of the league ladder still in control of their playoff destiny.
With two matches on a short week against other top tier teams in Seattle and Portland - Chicago’s road to the playoffs is both arduous and unfinished - a stiff cocktail that the Red Stars aren’t unfamiliar with.
The playoff ladder is uncomfortably close, and is likely to shift again this week depending on results - but with three matches remaining - the Red Stars are taking things one game at a time, no matter who their opponent is that week.
Go In Order Of Dibs
Their first of two west coast matches this past week was against Seattle Reign FC. The Red Stars were met with both short rest and the newest of weather related elements this season - smoke.
After playing this season in Rain, Shine, Sleet, Snow, Heat, Cold, the Red Stars could now add Smoke.
A gust of smoke-filled haze had been drifting north of California’s wildfires and were the cause of weather alerts in Seattle and for the league the day before and and day of the match.
Our medical team is closely monitoring the air quality in Seattle, and we are working with the @NWSL to assess the potential impact on tonight's match against @chiredstarsPR . At this time the plan is to proceed with the match as scheduled.— Seattle Reign FC (@ReignFC) August 15, 2018
The game eventually was played and there would be not two, but four hydration breaks for the players during the match. A game filled with missed opportunity for the Red Stars, ended in a scoreless draw as the team geared up for a trip down south to face Portland.
While it appeared as vitol missed points on the league table, Head Coach Rory Dames remained confident in his team and their performance in spite of the conditions saying,
“We’ve been down this road before the last few years. Being late and chasing points and figuring it out. We’ve got a pretty experienced group. There’s not a lot of teams that are going to come here and get a point let alone have a lot of the game. There’s not a lot to be disappointed in.”
There’s A Way
As the Red Stars settled into Portland for a match that Saturday following the draw against Seattle, the likelihood of points based on team histories was one that was grim. But this isn’t the exactly the same team of Red Stars past going up against a reigning champion Thorns team.
Chicago and Portland played a thrilling match for 18k in the stands and those watching on ESPNews. The Red Stars went up two goals in the 44th and 49th minute, but the travel appeared to catch up with them a bit as the match unfolded, and as the 60th minute approached the Thorns got a goal back, and eventually equalized in the 69th minute.
It would be another draw for the Red Stars, their third in three matches, and it was draw that the locker room felt was built on play suited to win the match overall.
Playing in Portland is never an easy feat. The Red Stars record against the Thorns is evident of that. However, Providence Park has become a place where players in the NWSL relish in playing, even if they are the visiting side.
One of those players is Chicago’s Sam Kerr, who is currently leading the league in goals scored, and scored a brace for the Red Stars that Saturday. In post game comments Kerr echoed the sentiment of her teammates history in Portland but countered that with her own enthusiasm about scoring and silencing thousands of fans.
“The girls said they never come and win here and I said `I love coming here because I always score.’ So I’m glad I backed it up tonight.” Kerr also said of the match overall “ I think we were the better team. I think we should have won. I think we’re disappointed with the ... tie. I think we should have won.”
The Red Stars haven’t lost perspective as the playoff push continues, despite the three draws, they remain focused and optimistic.
“We’ve played North Carolina, Seattle, and Portland who are meant to be the three best teams in the league if you look at the ladder.” Kerr elaborated on the three draws saying, “We out played North Carolina in the second half, it was a stalemate in Seattle like it always is, and I felt we were the better team tonight. So, going into finals - if we make it - we’re going to be pretty in a good spot.”
Positive momentum is a perspective that her teammates and Head Coach share. With an important match coming up against Orlando Pride, Dames says “We just need to keep going. We’ve played Orlando twice and the results didn’t go our way but we are by no means the same team that played Orlando in those two games.
In a post game interview, Dames emphasised how proud he has been of his teams performances as of late.
“Portland’s been the hottest team in the league that’s not Carolina and we just came in here - and for the 60 minutes that we could physically run - we played them off the field.” Dames continued, “The biggest thing I’ll take out of this is we just played the best three teams in the league over the last four games and I would say we had the better of all those games.”
Now She Could Play In The Stars
Midfielder Nikki Stanton got the start in the midfield against Portland as Danielle Colaprico got a rest. A player once heavily relied on by Chicago to help navigate the first half of the season, her role has now become one of depth and experience for the Red Stars as regular starters returned from injuries and midseason trades were made.
It’s a role she’s embraced and understands as she went 60 minutes for Chicago. “I’m always happy to contribute and work for my team,” said Stanton. “I’m happy to get the start and I’ll bust my ass whatever minutes I get for the Red Stars.”
Whether it’s coaches, starters, or significant role players, the message is the same across the board for the Red Stars - keep going.
“I think Orlando is definitely going to be a big match.” Stanton, said. “It’s nice to be getting one point off these teams, but I think we’re really close to taking that one step further to where the next we play them we get three.”
However late in the season, Stanton believes the best is yet to come for Chicago and says “I think that each game we’re looking stronger and we’re kind of just getting into our rhythm and I think that it’s good that we’re taking steps forward this late in the season.”
It’s a dangerous notion that this late in the season the Red Stars best is still yet to come, but it’s one that Stanton firmly believes in.
“We haven’t peaked yet.”
There’s A Way Out Of No Way
Big games against big teams has put Goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher under a bit of spotlight as of late, and the US Women’s National Team number one has seen her role grow for the Red Stars over this season.
The notoriously introverted keeper was tasked with the captains armband earlier this season as Julie Ertz was rehabbing from injury, and this late into the season, Naeher’s playoff outlook mirrors that of her squad.
“Since North Carolina, the mindset has been - these are playoff games for us.” said Naeher. “We’re in the home stretch and that’s the mentality we have. Every point matters at this point. It’s three hard games that we just came though. We got a point out of each of them.”
On Chicago’s playoff push ahead Naeher said, “Orlando is going to be a tough test for us, to travel down there on Saturday.” She continued, “same mindset going into it, we’ll build off of it the things that we’ve done well, what have started to click. We’ll clean up some of the things that we can continue to work on and try to go down to Orlando and get three points.”
While donning the gloves for Red Stars against Portland last Saturday, Naeher celebrated 100 NWSL appearances.
It was a milestone that she wasn’t aware of in part due to the teams current playoff journey “Did not know that,” Naeher said. “We’ve got three important games to close out here, I think looking back on it - it will be something to look back on [end of season].”
Naeher ended her post game comments like those of her teammates and coach. “My focus is here with our playoff push at this point.”