Chicago Red Stars 2 DiBernardo 37’, Kerr 58’
North Carolina Courage 1 Williams 30’
This was a match entirely new to Chicago.
Well, Arin Wright playing as a forward is certainly new. She’s a mainstay in the left back position for the Red Stars, but she’s also spent time in the midfield and has shown throughout this season that she can be effective going forward, so with the return of Tierna Davidson (an incredibly competent left back, who spent a game there once for both club and country this year), Wright slotted up top with Sam Kerr and Yuki Nagasato and it looked like the Red Stars were off to the races.
Another bold step was leaving Sarah Gorden in at center-back, after solidifying that partnership with Katie Naughton during the World Cup break. Gorden’s grown immensely into that role as the summer has progressed, and with Danny Colaprico still nursing a left knee injury, it made sense to put captain and world-beater Julie Ertz in that role as a No. 6, ask her to clean up a lot of messes, and rely on the center back pairing to hold fast against the aggressive attack of North Carolina.
Now, taking points off the reigning NWSL champions isn’t all that unusual for the Red Stars, nor is Sam Kerr ultimately getting the game-winning goal - she’s done that before. We’re also used to seeing Julie Ertz direct her midfield with confidence, Alyssa Naeher making saves that keep the Red Stars in the game, and Vanessa DiBernardo slipping in and around defenses to make hard passes look easy.
It’s also not unusual for the Red Stars to concede first.
When Debinha put a beautiful ball on a dime to Lynn Williams on the left side of the field, confusing Naeher into standing on her line as opposed to nabbing the ball in its tracks, that was pretty normal as well. Debinha’s been on fire in recent weeks, boosted by a wonderful World Cup performance, and Williams can hit those shots from close range. After 30 minutes of end-to-end play, sometimes the Red Stars bow to pressure in the midfield first, and the North Carolina Courage are relentless in their waves of attack. Chicago had done well to hold the Courage off, but one perfect pass and Naeher couldn’t bail them out of that one.
But it was what happened next, that incredible moment in the 37th minute, where one had to feel like the Red Stars were going to be okay, in whatever way that counts. It’s not a secret that Chicago has struggled to score during this stretch of the season, and it’s also not a secret that most of the scoring has come from Sam Kerr. So how about that, Arin Wright up the right wing sending a nice cross in to Vanessa DiBernardo making a late run that completely caught the North Carolina defense unaware.
And while DiBernardo getting her first goal of the season against such a talented defense was a sigh of relief in soccer terms, it was actually what happened right after that made this game something special. Lots has been written already in much larger publications than this about the mighty attendance number that Chicago pulled on Sunday, a feat of specificity and a larger movement that couldn’t be denied. But as we all know, sometimes achievements off the field don’t always match up with how the game of soccer is played, and goals like DiBernardo’s were very much not guaranteed against a team like North Carolina.
But that’s what made that equalizer, that wonderfully tricky run, so beautiful to behold. Vanessa DiBernardo, hometown hero and Red Stars lifer, knew she had made that play perfectly, and started celebrating before the ball even crossed the line along with 17,000 of her biggest supporters. That’s a watershed moment for this club, and this city. Unprecedented. Tie ballgame.
The second half saw a number of good looks for both teams, and Naeher’s confidence coming out of a wild World Cup shone through. She directed the defense into a more cohesive shape than we’ve seen in some time, and Rory Dames was able to slot Wright back into that left back slot to give Davidson a breather at halftime, bringing in Katie Johnson. With Michele Vasconcelos lost for the year, getting Johnson in and around what Kerr is doing with that greater midfield support is going to be key for the rest of the season.
It was then no surprise that Johnson was the one that was able to slot the ball in to Kerr in the 58th minute, and the star striker was able to make some real magic in front of a massive crowd. Abby Dahlkemper held Kerr onside to receive the pass, Kerr nutmegged Abby Erceg, switched the ball to her right foot and struck it home through the legs of Stephanie Labbe.
This was the Chicago squad that we saw early this season, but that seemed to disappear during the tournament break, so I also want to briefly highlight Morgan Brian’s work in this game. Brian was a surprise to many in making the U.S. Women’s National Team World Cup roster, and she didn’t see a ton of playing time in France, but she immediately turn the Red Stars midfield into an aspirational possession-style into a group that actually possessed with purpose and care.
Ultimately, I think expectations for Chicago were that they were going to be able to hold on to something gritty and important while the leaders were away, and they did struggle to do that. But there’s something to be said for struggling through with intent, so you can look like a cohesive group immediately once the major players return. The Red Stars looked sharp on Sunday against a very talented squad, and it set a mandate for the second half of the season. The fans got a hell of a show, I hope they found something to love forever in Bridgeview.
The Chicago Red Stars (6W 2D 5L, 20pts, 3rd place) will test their new luck on the road against Reign FC next Sunday.