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Power On: Washington Spirit 0, Chicago Red Stars 1, NWSL game recap

The anatomy of a five-game winning streak

Washington Spirit 0

Chicago Red Stars 1 Nagasato 65’

The Chicago Red Stars have won five games in a row

That’s a difficult thing to do in the NWSL in the best of circumstances, but the team has strung together a particularly impressive set of matches after an auspicious streak of losses where it looked like the Red Stars might be losing their grasp on the season.

In the first of those wins, they gutted a result against a Houston team that couldn’t find daybreak despite being given some opportunities. In the next two the Red Stars were flying, downing the defending champs and the Reign on the road in impressive fashion to once again establish themselves as a dangerous opponent for any team. The fourth match, once again without the squad’s USWNT players, found the core of the group carrying momentum against Utah, a team that relies heavily on their own US national contingent.

Saturday’s match against the Washington Spirit, like all matches, was a little different than the preceding four. Chicago was technically at full strength, though Morgan Brian spent the match on the bench after picking up a knock in the previous week.

And at the beginning of the match, the Red Stars looked like they were ready to follow the formula that had served them well during this run, pressing early and looking for a goal in the 15 minutes to make their opponent chase the game. But the Spirit aren’t a team that gives up space that easily, and they can run for days.

What played out in the first half wasn’t wholly dissimilar to the way the two teams played each other during Chicago’s other streak: the losing one. The Red Stars were finding each other pretty well, but setting up offensive openings for what felt like the wrong person to run onto. Danny Colaprico sends a nice ball through the Washington defense, but she needs Yuki Nagasato to win it on pace. Sam Kerr gets space out wide, but she sends the ball in for Arin Wright to try to one-time into the net. The ideas were there, but the mental connection wasn’t quite hitting.

However, in that first meetup between these two teams the Chicago Red Stars did not have Julie Ertz available. Ertz is hard to analyze in this particular moment, as she’s universally respected as one of the best players in the world, but her development somehow feels deeper than that. Her skills on the ball have continued to improve, and she’s able to move freely, from tucking inside the central defense, to disrupting and establishing play in the No. 6 role, to pushing forward when she sees that Vanessa DiBernardo and Sam Kerr aren’t getting enough time on the ball. Despite the lack of goals, Chicago’s defense didn’t seem in any real danger of giving up a lead to the Spirit, but Ertz was problem-solving even after the halftime whistle blew, and it was a difference-maker.

In the second half, the Spirit started working their way into the game, even after having to start Andi Sullivan in a center-back role in light of Paige Nielsen’s red card suspension from last weekend. The game also began to get chippy, with Colaprico, Sullivan, and Ertz all hitting the ground hard at one point or another. It looked like the cagey tactical match could turn into something of a bruiser, but the Red Stars finally got their goal before the match devolved into anything truly ugly.

Casey Short (what a season she’s having), collected the ball off of a throw-in in the 65th minute, before sending in a powerful ball with her back to goal to find the head of a crashing Yuki Nagasato, who hit the ball near post to beat Aubrey Bledsoe and give Chicago the lead they’d been looking for.

The match continued with chances for both teams, with one especially nervy moment late where Sarah Gorden had to give everything she had near the end-line and Casey Short gave the extra effort to save Katie Naughton’s life, but the Spirit could never put the whole package together in front of Chicago’s goal. The Red Stars on their own could’ve iced the game a couple of times, but Julie Ertz (yes, her again) couldn’t quite get the final shot pulled together.

In a way though, it’s a stronger point for the Red Stars to win this match 1-0 than if they’d found better ways to control throughout. The Spirit are a special kind of difficult team to get past: they’re very physically gifted and are operating with an impressive amount of buy-in this year. But the fact Chicago was able to get past them with a win on the road without actually executing as well as they’d like is qualitative progress, and will serve them well in the home stretch of this season. The team kept searching, they kept stringing plays together, and they got better than the 0-0 draw this game seemed destined towards.

Julie Ertz is one of the best soccer players in the world, and she’s Chicago’s captain for a reason. The team’s baseline quality is rising, and it’s an exciting time to be a Red Star.

The road trip continues against Sky Blue FC on Wednesday, August 14th at 6pm CT. Time to make it six.