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There Will be Cooler Days Ahead: Utah Royals 2, Chicago Red Stars 1, NWSL Game Recap

The regular season ends with a whimper, with the bang hopefully to come later

Photo courtesy of Chicago Red Stars

Utah Royals 2 Rodriguez 55’, Stengel 64’

Chicago Red Stars 1 Kerr 39’

Well, that’s not exactly the way Chicago wanted to end the regular season.

In a final game that mattered but also didn’t, as Portland and Seattle locked up the middle two post-season slots the night before, the Red Stars came out mostly satisfied to play things safe, not get hurt, and let the Royals possess their way through the match. It was a good strategy with an eye on Chicago’s semifinal, and one that showed a more assertive side than their 2017 regular season finale, but also ended a really solid few months of play with a bit of a whimper.

To be fair, expectations were pretty low in the hours previous to the starting lineups being announced. Casey Short has a sprained ankle from the U.S. Women’s National Team match on Tuesday, Julie Ertz strained her back in the same game, Brooke Elby was wearing a boot on her ankle as recently as Thursday, Vanessa DiBernardo is out with illness and Danny Colaprico probably wasn’t worth running out for more than 45 minutes against a Utah team that isn’t going to feature at all in the NWSL post-season.

Out of everyone listed above, it was Elby that ended up taking a major hit for the team, gutting out 67 minutes in some pain to allow Ertz to take the day off, since with Short out, Elby missing time would force Sarah Gorden wide with no center-back depth behind her. As it stood, Alyssa Mautz was able to slide into the outside back role for the final minutes of the match when Brian came in for Elby. Michele Vasconcelos and Nikki Stanton also came in to help carry the midfield throughout the match.

And while watching Chicago field less than 18 players available was a sweet throwback to the beginning of the season, it did indicate that the match was going to be something of a wash.

It wasn’t all bad though, with some solid play from Arin Gilliland and another classic from Sam Kerr starting the scoring. Vasconcelos collected the ball at the top of the box, sent it outside to Gilliland, who got a ball in the air that Kerr totally dunked into the back of the net. Call her MJ, she’s got 16 goals and will certainly end the season with the Golden Boot.

But the depth of the roster couldn’t hold the result for a full 90 minutes (the hot weather in Utah probably didn’t help a ton either). Vasconcelos had a very strong first half, but got lost a bit in the second, as did Rosie White. Elby also hit a physical wall where she started to lost control of her territory on the field, which let Utah back into the game. Katie Naughton lost Amy Rodriguez behind her shoulder, and Elby couldn’t cover for her, letting the striker sneak in behind the defense and win the Royals an equalizer.

Later, Utah legend Katie Stengel got the game-winner, heading in a ball from Taylor Lytle to put the home team over the top. Chicago went into fake desperation-mode after going down, with Alyssa Naeher practicing taking kicks from midfield and some key subs that inched closer to the Red Stars at full strength. This game would’ve felt a lot better if that had produced a draw, but the Red Stars had to settle for a final loss.

Perhaps this match was frustrating because you could see Chicago trying to make the result matter, and not getting it done. Or maybe it was just because despite a lot of progress, it still reminded me so much of where we started this season. I wouldn’t say I’m worried about next week, because that indicates that the Red Stars don’t know what they need to do, but I am trying to remain hopeful that they’ll have an opportunity to put together their best XI and play to the level they’re capable of. They gotta believe, and so do I.

Losing feels bad. Let’s not do that again. North Carolina, here we come.

The Chicago Red Stars (9W 10D 5L, 37pts, 4th in the NWSL Standings) face off against the North Carolina Courage next Sunday in the NWSL Playoff semifinals.