After a difficult stop-start season, the Chicago Red Stars managed to claw their way into the NWSL Playoffs for a fourth consecutive season.
However, their #4 seed pitted them against a North Carolina Courage side that is almost certainly the strongest in league history. It was always going to be an uphill battle from the opening whistle. The Red Stars gave it everything they had and it just wasn’t enough.
This Here My Favorite Song
Red Stars Head Coach Rory Dames set out a game plan for his team and they executed it well, which was the only consolation of the night.
“I think this one’s probably a little different, I thought we were really good tonight,” Dames said. “Thought we opened up a really good team, especially in the first half. It’s not often that they [North Carolina] pull back their pressure and sit back a little lower and we forced them into to doing that because we were able to break their lines.”
One focus for the club over the past few seasons was cultivating a strong midfield, dating back to former captain Lori Chalupny. The 2018 squad boasted what was probably the club’s strongest midfield to date, and one of the best in the league.
While all eyes were on Golden Boot winner Sam Kerr, the Australian striker acknowledged the Red Stars’ midfield with laying down the blueprint for disrupting North Carolina.
“I haven’t see North Carolina drop [in pressure] like that in a long time so its a credit to our midfielders, they were balling out,” Kerr said.
Casey Short was one of many Red Stars players this season who battled back from injury to make a postseason run with Chicago. Early in the second half she was instrumental in applying attacking pressure on the flank.
“I think we did things a little differently on each side, but we wanted to get high we wanted to be aggressive we wanted to put them on their heels,” Short said. “I think for the most part we did that in the first half. [We] definitely gained confidence in the second half, but again gave up another one. We just couldn’t finish, unfortunately. Which hurts.”
Chicago managed to outplay North Carolina in terms of possession, total passes, and passing accuracy, all of which allowed the Red Stars to create chances. Their strongest attacking play came in the first half, with several Chicago players hitting the woodwork as they searched for an equalizer. As Dames pointed out, against a team like North Carolina, there can be no margin for error.
“We hit a cross bar. [North Carolina] come down and get behind us, [McDonald] scores. We hit the inside of the post, it goes out. Sammy [Kerr] hits a bomb off the side of the post it goes out. I think last year we were pretty disappointed that we didn’t turn up in the game and I don’t think that’s the case at all tonight, I thought we were really good in the game.”
While the playoffs have become familiar territory for the Red Stars, the vibe surrounding the team was different than in previous postseason runs. Dames said that’s what makes the loss to North Carolina hurt so bad.
“This one will probably sting the most. The group was - it’s a special group. Different dynamic. [. . .] It doesn’t feel real good. But I’m extremely proud of the group and how we played tonight and how we showed up for ourselves.”
“We talked about it after [the match],” said Short. “This is a special team, for sure. So, it hurts. It’s going to hurt for awhile. But to be back with the team [after injury] means everything. Everyone was so supportive [during], just a very special team to be a part of.”
Shine Bright Like A Red Star
Bringing in new players this year for Chicago was the catalyst of change for the Red Stars. It started in the offseason as Nikki Stanton and Kerr found their way to Chicago that huge three-team trade that dominated headlines for months.
Although she missed the first few weeks of the season, Kerr’s impact on the team was felt since her arrival in Red Stars preseason camps. Despite not being able to get on the scoreline, her teammates and coach agree her role was much bigger than just scoring goals.
“Sam has meant more to us off the field than she has on the field,” said Dames. “Her personality radiates. The energy she brings to the group is contagious and she kinda changed the vibe of the team.”
“She is a light-hearted kid but a monster on the field. Being able to find that balance spread to a lot of other players on the team. Like I said, it’s a different group this year, with a different vibe this year, and Sammy is a big part of that. On the field obviously she’s a Get Out Of Jail Free card for us and she’ll carry this one for awhile.”
Short was sidelined for much of the first half of the season due to an ankle injury. She got to know Kerr on and off the pitch, first during her recovery and then in the thick of the run-in.
“She ended up being one of my closest friends off the field and it’s an honor to play with on the field after going against her all these years and having to chase her,” said Short. “But it’s awesome to go against her in practice, she makes you better every single day. She’s one of those players that always has fun. She has so much passion for the game and it’s inspiring.”
Kerr was disappointed in the result in her first year as a Red Star, but feels like she found a new home and family in Chicago.
“I’m happy to be here honestly. When I talk about leaving Sky Blue I never thought I’d be at Chicago and it kinda wasn’t in my plans to end up at Chicago but I’m so glad I did.”
“The group of girls we have here is something special. When I left Sky Blue that’s the thing I was most sad about, was leaving the girls.”
Kerr continued: “It’s hard to replace such a good team environment but this team has the same exact thing. We have so many big stars on our team but we have no big personalities. Everyone’s on a level playing field. It’s just a great change. I got better [as a player]. I feel like I’ve learned a lot.”
The end of the season usually means roster turnover. With a star as bright as bright as Kerr, the gossip began to circulate even before the 2018 regular season ended. But after the game, Kerr dismissed those rumors.
“I love living in Chicago, it’s been a good year other than tonight,” said Kerr. “If I stay injury free I will definitely be at the Chicago Red Stars. I think a lot of people have kind of whispered that I’m going to Europe [. . .] I wouldn’t really change what I’m doing at the moment going into a World Cup year. I’m enjoying my football. I’ve said it a million times but the best thing for me is when I’m happy and I’m happy off the field here. I don’t see myself moving and right now, I’m coming back next year.”
Tomorrow You Get To Wake Up In Chicago
Playing well against a dominant team like the Courage left the Red Stars both disappointed and optimistic. There wasn’t a player or coach that was hard on each other exiting the locker room. While falling short of their goal with this semifinal result, there was still the hint of optimism for next year.
“[I told them] that I was extremely proud of them,” said Dames. “I haven’t made myself vulnerable to a group in awhile and I consider them to be a part of my family.”
“It’s a different connection. The connection of the group is something that takes time to get to. Some of the adversity that we went through this year helped us build to it. But I told them I was extremely proud of them, I told them that I thought they put their best effort forth and that I consider all of them my family. I’m going to miss them while they are gone [in the offseason] but I can’t wait to get back together next year.”