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Call It What It Is: Orlando Pride 2, Chicago Red Stars 3, NWSL Game Recap

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Finally, a win! Why does my stomach still hurt?

Photo courtesy of the Chicago Red Stars

Orlando Pride 2 Ubogagu 22’, Marta 79’ (PK)

Chicago Red Stars 3 Kerr 7’, 45+3’, 56’

Well, Sam Kerr’s back!

The Australian striker came right back from a disappointing World Cup campaign this week, and immediately reminded everybody exactly who she is, scoring a cool hat trick to give the Red Stars their first victory in a month over the hapless Orlando Pride.

Going into this season I don’t think anyone would’ve anticipated this particular match as a must-win, but that’s certainly how it felt for a Chicago team that is danger of letting this season get way out of hand. This week Rory Dames benched both Katie Johnson and Savannah McCaskill, opting for the front-three dynamic of Kerr, Nagasato, and Vasconcelos that had been firing so well before Kerr left for the World Cup.

The roster moves were fine, but the game-changer turned out to just be Kerr, who sniped three different goals off an Orlando backline that was prone to mistakes, first seizing a back-pass in the 7th minute to give Chicago their first goal since she left for France. As a moment on its own, this was great! It was wonderful to see Kerr return to her club and immediately start having fun again. Casey Short also had a great first half, showing off some swagger in the offensive third that had been missing during the Red Stars’ winless streak.

The other two goals were also very good, one coming off of Nagasato reading an Orlando goal kick with a header that sprung Kerr in one-on-one on goal, and the third came from Vasconcelos sending a well-weighted ball for Kerr to dribble past the whole Pride defense and send across her body to give Chicago a cushion as the game progressed. This felt like the loose and confident offense we saw before the World Cup break, with the front three not missing a beat.

But Chicago, all the Red Stars, gather. We need to talk.

Despite the details of the match pointing to the Red Stars taking what the game was giving them, this was a disappointing return for Chicago’s star. Not in that Sam Kerr looks shaken, she absolutely does not, but she’s returned to a team that needs her way too much. The Red Stars have always been a team that struggles to rise above median expectations, with too many people on the field looking for the game-changer to tell them how to succeed. Well, they got her back, but they’ve let themselves get so sloppy in her absence.

Yes, Orlando’s initial equalizer will lie at the feet of Emily Boyd - she made a pretty bad mistake letting Chioma Ubogagu jump in and steal a goal. But her having to react to that pressure came from a Red Stars midfield that seemed content to allow themselves to be pushed off the ball by the Pride, and who were wasteful in possession for much of the match. Katie Naughton did a heroic job of making it through the first half on a bad hip, but the Red Stars opened themselves up to trouble time and again by letting the ball go in the middle of the field and expecting the defense to absorb Orlando’s attack without getting burnt.

For the most part, they got away with that this week. Brooke Elby had a really bad tackle that led to Orlando’s second goal, a penalty late in the match, and Casey Short covered a heck of a lot of ground. But these were the same mistakes that lost them the game against Washington, and against Portland, and against Reign FC. By the nature of the universe a Chicago Red Stars team with Sam Kerr beats this Orlando team 9 times out of 10, but it’s very concerning that none of these issues have been addressed, and that they continue to pop up on a squad that should be playing for more than some time on the grass. The Red Stars should know better, and the presence of a superstar can only cover over the cracks for so long.

The Red Stars (4W 2D 4L, 14pts, 6th place) will likely not have to deal with any of these things when they play Sky Blue next Saturday.