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Rarefied Air: Houston Dash 1, Chicago Red Stars 2, NWSL Game Recap

Chicago is the real deal this year, what a blessing and what a curse

Photo via Chicago Red Stars

Houston Dash 1 (Huerta 26’)

Chicago Red Stars 2 (Kerr 8’, 13’)

I think everyone knew that Chicago’s first game against Sofia Huerta’s Houston Dash was likely to be a humbling experience, one way or another. But what played out in a humid BBVA Compass Stadium on Sunday night felt like less of a wasted opportunity and more like a whole new world.

The Red Stars got away with a 2-1 win, and cemented a relationship to the rest of the league that feels like something wholly new and different to what we’ve seen in the past.

Last year, Chicago had to just hang on, #scamgang style, long enough to give themselves a chance to gather points before their full starting XI could make it back from injury to make a run into the post-season. Even when they started to meld, the team stuck to a large number of draws to get the point total high enough to start gunning for wins.

It worked last year, to a certain extent, but that’s simply not where Chicago is right now. This team is walking into every game with a chance to win, even more so with the talent they have staying home from the World Cup, as other teams’ best players start to leave.

But in a game like this one against Houston, a stronger overall position isn’t necessarily the more comfortable one to be in. Long gone are the days of underestimating this squad, and lesser teams are coming at them to disrupt, to take shots, and to steal points from a roster that can play really beautiful soccer when they’ve got a grasp on a game.

Some of that comes from personnel. Some of that comes from formation. And some of that comes from a common gripe about the NWSL as a whole: physicality. Houston isn’t losing any Americans to the World Cup, but they’ve lost quite a few Canadians already. And Rachel Daly, arguably their best player, has both feet out the door after a red card suspension from last weekend, bleeding into what would have been her final game with the club before the big break.

With Daly out, Chicago looked to contain Houston with Casey Short smothering Kealia Ohai on the wing, and letting the Dash send balls in to their rookie Kayla McCoy at the nine spot in lieu of more dangerous chances from Ohai or Huerta. That mostly worked, especially in the first 20 minutes of the match that saw the Red Stars completely overwhelm their opponent.

Sam Kerr got on the board early, as her emerging partnership with Michele Vasconcelos continued, with the latter sending a beautiful ball to split Houston’s defense and put Kerr on goal, beating Jane Campbell and getting the Red Stars on the board. Just four minutes later, Kerr would double the lead after a give-and-go with Vanessa DiBernardo, sticking with the play after a half-tackle from the Dash backline, and it looked like Chicago was running away with this one early.

But those kinds of starts usually lead the way for thornier and more complicated matches, and Chicago started to sharply fade in the last 20 minutes of the half, due to the Houston heat and the fragmented psychology of holding a two-goal lead so early. I don’t think the Red Stars have done very well to close out the first half of many of their matches this year, losing possession and trying their luck at defending, but it was no shock when who but Sofia Huerta succeeded in getting Houston a goal back in the 26th minute.

Chicago did well to survive the end of the first half, and struggled in the first 20 minutes of the second as well, but once the Red Stars made it to the hour mark things started to calm down. Huerta did her best to ignite her team, understanding that nothing was getting past Short, and driving attacks on Arin Wright’s side of the field. But the reality of this moment is that Chicago, even depleted from World Cup absences, is more equipped to find answers to this sort of a game than Houston is. It leaves us in whole new territory.

There are certain heartbeats to an NWSL match. Wonder strikes, crunching tackles, and mischief around the midfield line all come into play as teams look for an advantage. But those scenarios feel very specific to the type of soccer each team is trying to play, and the gamesmanship feels worse or better accordingly. In their history, Chicago is absolutely not above having to take some tough fouls to try to give their team a shot.

But wow, how weird and how wonderful to be on the other side of the looking glass now. Houston dumped multiple Red Stars to the ground to try to figure out how to unlock the match a few times in the second half, and the officials didn’t give Chicago a ton of relief from that. But it ended up not mattering, and the stronger team won out.

It wouldn’t have been shocking if the Dash had found a way to sneak a point from this one, and fair play to them. But the Red Stars are starting to play with the confidence of a team that’s in the upper echelon of this league. This is new, and scary, but what better way to push higher than ever before.

The Chicago Red Stars (3W 2D 1L, 11pts, 1st place) return home next Sunday to take on Washington.