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Long Walk Home: Portland Thorns 3, Chicago Red Stars 0, NWSL Game Recap

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A game to forget, a performance deserving some reflection

Nikita Taparia Photography

Portland Thorns 3 Purce 27’ 31’, Everett 85’

Chicago Red Stars 0

I’m caught in the middle of this.

I’ve been openly eager from the beginning of the season for Chicago to stick with their possession-based 4-3-3 formation, and develop Vanessa DiBernardo as their true no. 10. I’ve also wanted Katie Johnson to be the no. 9 that Chicago so desperately needs without Sam Kerr, for both the club and for a player I like a lot. I’ve wanted Casey Short to prove why she should be in Europe right now, and I’ve wanted the Red Stars to develop into a power that pushes past the #scamgang, countering lifestyle of seasons past. I wanted them to score without Kerr, while also playing with a quality outside the reach of many of the teams with their international players gone.

And sometimes, during tonight’s game against the Portland Thorns, a nightmare 3-0 defeat in which Chicago could never really find a foothold, I felt like I was getting exactly what I asked for. The Red Stars possessed, probed, and passed around the Thorns B-team. But they also fell apart in the face of a two-fronted attack from Midge Purce and Simone Charley (Simone! Charley!), and turned most of their possession into wasted attacks that the Thorns were able to deflect relatively easily. Purce and Charley combined for two goals in the first half (in the 27th and 31st minutes, respectively) that broke the Red Stars before they had a chance to pull themselves together, and that was it. Game over, time for the World Cup break.

But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.

One game is bad luck, and two is a pattern, but this game was set for a tough time for Chicago from the beginning. Being handed the Portland Thorns home opener this year set conditions throughout the game that were, quite frankly, unfair. Not in the sense that Chicago shouldn’t have to be able to win at Providence Park, but in that instead of any other team, the Red Stars were the ones being sacrificed to the scheduling gods and tasked with making something out of an impossible situation. The Thorns that showed up to play this match came through with the hype of 20,000 fans behind them, and they were ready to ball. The hordes showed up, they were loud as hell, and the home team over-performed.

We knew all of this was going to happen since the schedule was released, and one really had to hope after a weird mental game against Washington that the Red Stars were prepared for a hellish half hour, before hopefully calming the game down. They almost made it to the half hour mark, and then the wheels fell off.

But wait, I’m not being fair, because they’re caught in the middle of this too.

If soccer was a game purely dominated by numbers, Chicago had all of them. Possession, passing percentage, corner kicks, shots, shots on target, all of them favored the Red Stars. So how did they end up so stretched and so out-worked? They’re playing in the style they’ve been working towards, and they’ve now lost two games in a row, without scoring a single goal. They’re connecting in the attacking third, and they’re still out there looking for Kerr. They’ve got a few weeks off now. I’m reticent to over-analyze what needs to be done, because we’re staring at a different landscape when the team reconvenes.

But this game felt unfair, and not because there were almost 20,000 fans in the stands. It felt unfair that Portland, the team with a thousand internationals, has inexplicably found a way to survive this period of the season. It felt unfair that Katie Johnson, a good person and a good player, is struggling to live up to what her team needs from her in this stretch. It felt unfair that Katie Naughton, always a rock, looked lost in the back, and that Danny Colaprico can’t get truly healthy. Bad luck on bad luck on bad luck.

But if that many things feel that unfair, then the team is failing to take control of just about anything. I said that Chicago would be fine after last weeks performance, and I do still think that’s true. But they have to find a way to score goals, and make tackles, and refuse to lose. I love that they want to play this way, but Captain DiBernardo needs to tell her teammates what to do, and they have to understand that they aren’t getting bailed out by anybody but themselves.

Time for everyone to take a deep breath, a nice long nap, and a hard look at who they want to be. They’re stuck in the middle of this mess, and they’re the ones that have to get themselves out of it. Because the Portland Thorns aren’t going away. And they live at Providence Park.

The Chicago Red Stars (3W 2D 3L, 11pts, 5th place) return on June 23rd when they take on Reign FC at home.