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Promises Kept: Chicago Red Stars 1, Portland Thorns FC 0, NWSL Game Recap

Meet me on the other side

Chicago Red Stars 1 Kerr 8’

Portland Thorns FC 0

“But if it’s a dubious distinction to go out like this every year, it’s also a strange honor to be this consistently disappointed. Despite all the turnover, this team makes an honest run of it every time, and that’s something to be proud of. But I don’t think that’s even what I’m talking about. Women’s soccer used to be something with two shots at international glory every four years, and excruciating gaps in-between. To have this game hurt this badly, but with the continuous promise of next year, is a privilege that I don’t take for granted.

And when Chicago does finally win the whole damn thing, which they will, it’s going to feel all the more amazing for it. That’s the final word on that.”

I wrote that last year. What a difference a year makes.

The Chicago Red Stars defeated the Portland Thorns for the first time in five years on Sunday, banishing two demons at once and punching their ticket to their first NWSL championship game.

The Thorns always make one nervous, dominating Chicago through a history of excellence and a shared club ethos that the Red Stars have had difficulty fully containing for a 90-minute game. But I hope it’s not revisionist history to point out that this game felt like a completely new experience between these two teams, even before the first whistle blew.

Because we knew Chicago was going to win.

The Thorns had scored 10 goals against the Red Stars in 2019, but none of those games had Tierna Davidson and Julie Ertz as the center-back duo, the final piece that rendered Chicago’s defense truly elite. The Thorns also came into the game on a bit of skid, having scored only one goal in five games in a stretch that saw them suffer their worst loss in club (and league) history.

But I don’t think that’s exactly why we knew the Red Stars were going to win this one.

One reason is because Chicago’s been playing like the elite soccer team we always knew they could be, and another compelling one coincides with the squad being truly healthy and executing with confidence. These are all compelling features in what ended up turning into a moment of Red Stars history.

But we all knew they were going to win because they were playing in Chicago.

One of the unique privileges of this season has been watching the Red Stars community grow into a force this year, headed by efforts from the club itself and from supporters group Local 134. The crowds have been bigger, but more importantly they’ve been louder, and supporter culture has found its way to SeatGeek stadium. On Sunday the chants were pervasive, and they never stopped. Soccer is a sport of momentum, and the fans never let that momentum fully shift in Portland’s favor.

Which was very important, because Chicago ended up defending a 1-0 lead for much of this match.

In retrospect, there was no other possible way this match was going to start, with the Red Stars coming in to apply heavy pressure in the first 15 minutes and get their opening goal straightaway. This has been their recipe for success for much of the season, and for obvious psychological reasons getting on the board as soon as possible was going to be huge.

Because this is what the Portland Thorns have been doing to Chicago for years. They apply pressure, hit on the counter, and don’t let the Red Stars believe they can get back into the game, with the voices of their loyal supporters driving them on.

So the amount of satisfaction when Yuki Nagasato sent the best pass of the 2019 NWSL season over to Sam Kerr, who shot far-post to beat AD Franch and put the Red Stars up 1-0 in the eighth minute was one of years of anticipation. Chicago was standing up and saying ‘No. Not this time’.

The rest of the match played out without all that many exciting things actually happening, despite the continuous feeling of possibility that this could change at any time. Even in a slump, the Thorns are a dangerous team, and they did a very good job of possessing in the middle of the field, always looking for the perfect chance to get an equalizer.

But that moment never came. Chicago stayed locked in, devoted to team defense, and they never made that one mistake that always seems to sink them against Portland. They were ready for this moment, and so was the crowd.

There are numerous soccer reasons why this game played out the way it did, and the Thorns have some reckoning to cope with how their season ended, but for now it’s clear that the Red Stars are dialed in. It’s an odd feeling after the rollercoaster ride of a season Chicago’s had to say that there’s surety to how they’re playing now, but the confidence they showed on Sunday was of a group that’s been through some things, and clearly feel like they’re on the other side.

So now we’re all on the other side, all of us in the Chicago women’s soccer community. In the dying moments of the match, Nagasato took the ball to Portland’s corner, not giving the Thorns an inch to try to save their season. She juked one, and then two, and then three defenders to hold on to the ball for as long as possible. At the end of a tense match, the ovation of the crowd spurring her grew over time, as it became clear that this was how the game was going to end. The cheers were for retribution sure, but more celebrating a promise finally kept. It was a shout to the sky that this beautiful moment doesn’t just belong to Portland, or to North Carolina, or any team that’s hit this milestone before. We are Chicago, and this moment is ours now.

It feels all the better for it, friends. On to the Championship.