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Any Way the Wind Blows: Chicago Red Stars 4, Portland Thorns 4, NWSL Game Recap

The Red Stars survive a wild home opener

Chicago Red Stars 4 Nagasato 18’, 90’; Kerr 20’, Vasconcelos 77’

Portland Thorns 4 Sinclair 16’, 51’, 87’; Crnogorcevic 33’

Today’s match had all the makings of a marquee home opener; the new kits looked great, the sun was shining, and the Portland Thorns were in town. Not unlike they way they play North Carolina, the Red Stars have taken Portland down to the wire for a number of years, but it has felt like the Thorns have walked away with the better points every time.

It’s not that the Thorns and the Red Stars don’t line up well, but there is a feeling to each match that Portland comes in with an edge and a certain amount of precision that sinks the Red Stars in weird ways. These matches are always physical, and the Red Stars haven’t always found a way to match Portland’s intensity.

To emphasize the point, Portland came in with a fully powered lineup, barring the availability of the injured Emily Menges. Portland’s play-making duo in Tobin Heath and 2018 MVP Lindsey Horan were bolstered by Caitlin Foord and Christine Sinclair, and despite the growing strength of Chicago’s defensive core, the likelihood of holding all that firepower back for a full 90 seemed like a tough ask.

For the Red Stars, Katie Johnson got the start up top, with Alyssa Mautz sliding into midfield with Danny Colaprico and Julie Ertz. Perhaps most importantly, Casey Short got the start at outside back, a true necessity against a player like Heath.

Things got off the ground quickly, quite literally. The first half was incredibly windy and Portland had the better run of play whipping balls towards Chicago’s goal. The scoring opened when Christine Sinclair had an odd chip in the 16th minute to get the visitors on the board early. However, as soon as the restart sounded Chicago ran the ball up the opposite end, Katie Johnson got pressure on the left side and goaded Ellie Carpenter into a handball, setting up an equalizing Yuki Nagasato penalty.

The weird goals didn’t end there, when in the 20th minute Sam Kerr caught Emily Sonnett sleeping, stripping the ball and nutmegging AD Franch to put Chicago in the lead. Then the wind took over; in the 33rd minute Meghan Klingenberg sent in a cross that caught the breeze and extended off an Ana Cernogorcevic nudge to bring Portland level.

I just listed a bunch of goals, most of which were odd. It looked once again like Chicago and Portland were tricking each other into making poor plays, and pouncing on opportunities. That’s not a mental game where the Red Stars usually thrive, but they could have done worse than all-level at the half.

The second started with decent movement from Chicago, but Portland pulled ahead once again with a shot by Sinclair in the 51st, slipping behind the Red Stars defense off a ball from Klingenberg, after Tobin Heath worked the ball into the box. Chicago has always had trouble keeping an eye on their marks against Portland, and it showed in that sequence.

But then, Morgan Brian, Michele Vasconcelos, and Vanessa Dibernardo came on, and everything shifted. The Red Stars have struggled to showcase a ton of accuracy in the midfield in the first two games of the season, which has forced unnecessary defending from the squad. Some of that certainly comes from the nature of early season, but some of that comes from personnel, and getting their more possession-minded players on the field turned Chicago into a whole new team. The Red Stars equalized again in the 77th minute off a beautiful sequence from Dibernardo, to Brian, to Ertz, and in to Vasconcelos that had to be the most fluid piece of cohesive offense that Chicago have put together in some time.

But they were playing the Thorns, and nothing’s ever easy. In the 86th minute, after Naughton brought the physical match full circle by bringing down Midge Purce in the box, Sinclair finished her hat trick, putting Portland up 4-3.

It really looked like it was over, but Sam Kerr and Yuki Nagasato weren’t going to let it go down that easy. In the 90th minute, Kerr dribbled into traffic after a give-and-go at the top of the box, getting a shot off that deflected off the Portland defense. The ball found Nagasato’s making a follow-up run and hit off her knee to find the games final goal, locked up at 4-4.

Chicago almost found the game-winner at the death in stoppage time, but couldn’t get the final shot to fall. Yes, another draw for the Red Stars, and the Portland ghosts have not been fully banished, but Chicago got better as the game progressed, and showed resilience when they thought all was lost. This was a weird game, but this team is for real. Reign FC next week.