Going into the upcoming international break, the Chicago Red Stars have done the unlikely, all but clinching the final playoff spot to compete for the 2018 NWSL Championship. The team has two games left in the regular season, and simply needs to grab one result between the two of them (interestingly, their regular season finale is against the only other team currently still in the post-season run, the Utah Royals).
At this point, it seems not completely imprudent to imagine the Red Stars coaching staff imagining how they’re going to manage this squad through the rest of the season with one eye cautiously looking towards a semifinal run. The next game for Chicago comes up against the hapless Sky Blue, with Sam Kerr available if not their U.S. Women’s National Team stars, and the Red Stars could theoretically see a result in sight long before the final whistle.
And with that comes the yearly question - is it time to think about rotating?
The mere mention of rotation itself is not without some baggage in recent Red Stars history. Just last year, Dames essentially conceded Chicago’s regular season closer against the Portland Thorns, resting many of his starters. History (and former Red Stars captain Christen Press) looked this decision with some skepticism, as the Red Stars were on something of a skid into fourth place, and the Thorns took the momentum of that final result all the way to the NWSL Championship Final.
But this team’s journey hasn’t been the same as that 2017 squad, in a number of different ways. One being that Chicago is arguably playing the best soccer in its history at the moment, and the team gelling and exceeding expectations is what is leading them towards post-season eligibility in the first place. Another difference is that while this Red Stars squad is incredibly talented, it remains somewhat fragile.
If the swift and devastating back injury to the Thorns’ Hayley Raso (that likely ended her season) last weekend reminded me of anything, it’s that no player is guaranteed to make it through any game, and with so little time left in the NWSL season, one or two bad knocks to key Chicago pieces could spell disaster in an ostensible semifinal matchup against the league crushing North Carolina Courage.
But this is also the NWSL, and momentum matters. And perhaps even more significantly, the psychological aspect of a strong regular season finish could be more important to the Red Stars than any other team currently in the top four. Chicago’s issues in the post-season frequently seem to be more in their own heads than in what they’re actually equipped to do on a soccer pitch. This team needs to believe they’re just as good as any other team in the league, and the boost of a good result is worth the risk.
And with the nature of the beginning of the Red Stars season, with all the absences and injuries, the coaching staff already has a solid idea of what the depth on the bench can bring. Michele Vasconcelos has speed both in pushing forward and defending, but her decision making is still that of a rookie. Rosie White’s work-rate is unyielding, but she can’t create opportunities in front of goal like Yuki Nagasato can. These are proven scenarios, and while Chicago’s depth has value, the rise in their quality of play has to do with the specific players working together on the field for the last four games.
Don’t run key players into the ground if nursing a significant lead, but the Red Stars should start the best XI available against Sky Blue on September 4th. When tasked with having to act like every next game is already a playoff, Chicago has succeeded beyond expectations. It’s time to keep that going all the way to North Carolina.