Chicago Red Stars 2 Kerr 5’, Elby 85’
Utah Royals 0
When the Chicago Red Stars were struggling to get results during the World Cup period, they repeated a similar mantra after every match: improvement can’t just come from one person; everyone has to give more. If every single person on the field can give just 5% more, then this group is going to figure it out.
And by this group I mean this particular lineup, these Red Stars without their 2019 World Champs. This squad was expected to steer the ship with a steadier hand while U.S. Women’s National Team players were away, and they dropped three tough results - all at home. So playing the Utah Royals without Tierna Davidson, Julie Ertz, Alyssa Naeher and Morgan Brian was an unexpected opportunity (this being the friendly outside a FIFA window) for these players to finish this period of the season decisively.
Rory Dames’ lineup on Saturday looked similar to ones we saw during that stretch, with Katie Johnson joining Sam Kerr and Yuki Nagasato up top, and Nikki Stanton holding up the midfield with Danny Colaprico and Vanessa DiBernardo (Arin Wright, as versatile as ever, made her way back to left back). Colaprico was an interesting figure, having sat out three consecutive match-days on a questionable left knee, and her rehabilitation was going to be key to maneuvering through this match against a capable Utah team.
Also, scoring in the 5th minute helps. If there was anyone on the Red Stars squad that has personified giving 5% more of herself every game, it’s been Casey Short, who had another phenomenal match on Saturday. She was in a mismatch against Utah’s Mallory Weber, a listed forward who isn’t primarily known for her defensive prowess, and she found space on that right side for much of the match. In that 5th minute, Short duked Weber to cut the ball inside, and then sent a very nice cross in towards the head of Sam Kerr, who gave the ball a good strike. Nicole Barnhart, having another great season in Utah’s goal, got a hand on it, but Kerr was there to hit in the rebound and the Red Stars were sitting in a very good spot.
Utah’s struggle to chase games has been well-documented, but throughout that whole first half they found ways to possess well in the midfield, and stretch Chicago’s defense, but this Red Stars lineup looked wholly capable of handling what they were getting from the Royals - which brings us back to Danny Colaprico.
Colaprico looked healthier and more comfortable on the ball on Saturday than perhaps she’d been all season, making good decisions and helping disrupt Utah’s movement throughout the match. I mentioned this last week, but it’s through the recovery that we’re seeing just how much Chicago was struggling physically through that World Cup break. Katie Naughton looks like she’s recovered much of her range of movement after gutting out some performances on a bad hip, and Vanessa DiBernardo - if not always looking comfortable on challenges - is moving with more confidence in her ability to control the ball than we’ve seen before her major hip injury last year.
To Utah’s credit, the beginning of the second half looked very much like an inevitable Royals equalizer was imminent. They came through with waves of pressure that Chicago had to scramble to neutralize, and Emily Boyd gave her much-needed extra percentage in some well-timed saves to keep the game in the Red Stars’ favor.
And then, the game opened up into a fabulous match between two very smart teams. DiBernardo, Kerr and Nagasato were combining incredibly well together, only to be foiled by the massive play of Barnhart time and again. Amy Rodriguez showed her ability to confuse backlines, and got in behind a number of times, but couldn’t quite get the shot off. Vero Boquette was all over the field, making recover runs, instigating play on the wings, and urging her team off the ball to try to help Utah turn their positives into a result.
As the match went on, it seemed more and more likely that the Royals were going to get that equalizer, and the Red Stars were struggling to defend such a fragile lead. Fortunately, their subs were timely enough to ice the game. Brooke Elby (President), came on for Katie Johnson in the 78th minute, and Savannah McCaskill subbed in for Colaprico in the 84th, after Colaprico took a knock. The fresh legs made all the difference, when Kerr sprang McCaskill in behind the Utah defense. McCaskill got a shot off, only to be deflected by Barnhart - but Elby was there to strike in the rebound. Match.
The physical rehabilitation of this Chicago group is part of the story of why this game went so well, after so many had gone so poorly, but this idea of that extra 5% from everybody, after so many weeks of trying finally worked. Even though Chicago’s USWNT players weren’t on the field with their teammates, their presence was felt everywhere. A little bit of competition (and a little bit of hope) can go a long way. Seems like the Red Stars are ready to go the distance.
The Chicago Red Stars (8W 2D 5L, 26pts, 3rd place) are back in action next Saturday on the road against Washington.