Washington Spirit 2 Boyd OG 8’, Hatch 63’
It was the Chicago Red Stars’ Pride night in Bridgeview on Sunday evening, and the weather finally showed up in a nice way for the home squad. The night was ultimately spoiled however by a 2-0 loss to the visiting, new look, Washington Spirit.
There might have been an indication of trouble ahead that the Red Stars lined up in their preferred 4-3-3 formation, with Michele Vasconcelos, Katie Johnson, and Yuki Nagasato up top, and Vanessa DiBernardo, Nikki Stanton, and Brooke Elby in the midfield.
Brooke Elby is a talented all-around player, and a hard worker, but everything in that decision looked like Chicago was expecting to have Danny Colaprico available to start, and when presented with her inability to make it into the match decided to change...nothing.
There’s an argument for this, and I do still think the 4-3-3 is worth fighting for with one eye on how Chicago wants to play when all of their stars return, but the midfield simply wasn’t ready for today.
This lopsided formation played out in the first half, with Washington doing a good job of disrupting the Red Stars’ possession in the midfield, and Chicago struggling to capitalize on the precise work of DiBernardo at the No. 10. The first goal conceded (officially and Emily Boyd own goal in the 9th minute) was a bit unlucky, in that the Red Stars did a pretty good job containing what the Spirit were trying to do in the run of play, but also bad luck of their own making after conceding an unnecessary corner and defending it poorly - this isn’t the first time Chicago’s set piece defending has descended into chaos, but it hurt them on the scoresheet this time.
For the rest of the half, Chicago kept searching for an equalizer, but had trouble getting out of their own way. A perfect encapsulation of the Red Stars’ evening occurred in the 18th minute, when DiBernardo fed Johnson in on goal, and Johnson took one too few steps and shanked the ball wide.
It wasn’t obvious in the moment that that play was a hinge that would spell frustration for Chicago, but looking back on it it was clear that it let some doubt creep into Johnson’s mind that her role in the 9 was going to work for the rest of the match, and with Andi Sullivan marking Vasconcelos with impunity, the Red Star began to recede.
The second half found Chicago struggling to communicate, to hold on to the ball, and to come up with ideas in front of goal to get them back in it. Once the doubt settled in, no one up top wanted to take those shots, and Chicago’s time in the offensive third ended up wasted. Which is to say, the Red Stars offense was looking for Sam Kerr, and she’s not going to be back for a while.
Those growing pains are to be expected, but Chicago also had trouble vocalizing what they needed each other to do, and they ended up getting stretched as the second half went on, leading to Washington’s second goal in the 63rd minute, after Arielle Ship sent in a strong cross, and Ashley Hatch beat Katie Naughton to double the Spirit lead.
In general, Washington looked like a team that was calmly executing a game plan, and they did that well, but Chicago let themselves get beat by their own confusion more often than they were outplayed by a young Spirit squad. They desperately missed Colaprico in the middle of the field, and the front three looked like they simply hadn’t considered how it would feel to have Kerr gone.
But the good news is Colaprico is on the mend, and now there are no excuses. Johnson and Vasconcelos have a week to figure out how to best become lethal in front of goal, Chicago can learn exactly how their formation (that had been so effective in the past few weeks) broke down, and they can take those lessons into Portland. This will also be lost to the 2-0 scoreline, but Sarah Gorden was quietly very good in this match. Her one-on-one defending has improved exponentially since she took over in the central defense, and she played with a calm and a confidence that she’d do well to lend to some of her teammates.
This game was tough, but the Red Stars are going to be fine. Mental blocks are more fixable than personnel deficits, and their good players are still very good. It’s not going to be easy to pick themselves up in Providence Park next week, but they’ll learn from that too. After the match Rory Dames emphasized that these players have to convince themselves that they’re good enough to compete with anyone, and not try to be anyone but who they are. Words to consider.
The Chicago Red Stars (3W 2D 2L, 11pts, 4th place) are back at it on the road next Sunday against Portland.