Chicago Red Stars 1 Short 90+5’
What a difference one goal can make.
It’d be so easy to describe the Chicago Red Stars’ performance on Wednesday night in Orlando as more of the same trouble, a symptom of a punishing schedule and a lack of ability to close down the competition.
Except for that goal.
If the Red Stars had ended this match in a 0-0 draw, with a second dropped result to the league-bottom Pride, with the hope of a postseason spot slipping into the distance, one would’ve been inclined to say harsh things.
So thank goodness they got that goal, because that’s not what happened.
Chicago was utterly dominant in Orlando on Wednesday, passing in the middle of the field with impunity and getting looks for multiple players in front of goal. They were steady in defense, and worked their way around Orlando’s backline multiple times.
But wow, they could not buy a goal.
Chicago hasn’t been a team with a great amount of luck this season. They win games when they play well, but they haven’t landed many fluke results. More frequently, they’ve looked like the more dominant team throughout stretches without ever getting the final look to reflect that on the scoreboard. Some of this is on them, but also sometimes they adhere to what any average viewer would consider to be a good soccer performance, only to be outdone by a few tough bounces and a few good runs.
They also have one of the best strikers in the world, and the right kind of goalkeeper loves that kind of a challenge.
Ashlyn Harris had a very good game on Wednesday, not only containing Sam Kerr, but getting hands on looks from Katie Johnson, Danny Colaprico, Julie Ertz, and any other number of Red Stars that had shots on goal. Throughout her career, Harris has caught a lot of flack for inconsistency, but when she’s on her game she’s incredibly difficult to get past. And despite having the run of play throughout, the Red Stars couldn’t get past her.
Until they did.
Before we get to that goal though, a soliloquy on Chicago’s third forward position. This spot, held by Alyssa Mautz for so many years, has been a puzzle for the Red Stars in their preferred 4-3-3 ever since the veteran striker went down with an ACL injury. For a while, it looked like Michele Vasconcelos might be the answer, but she herself lost the rest of her season to an ACL tear, and figuring out which combination of Kerr, Nagasato and [fill in the blank] has been an issue for the Red Stars.
Both Katie Johnson and Savannah McCaskill are younger than their counterparts in the attack, and both are coming out of the same tough club situation in Denise Reddy’s vision of Sky Blue FC. Neither player has completely taken over a game yet, nor have they looked like they necessarily know how to be dangerous without Kerr, but quietly and calmly they’ve both improved in limited roles and have developed as the season has gone on.
It’s with the benevolence of what came next that I can look at Katie Johnson getting her second red card of the season without too harsh of an eye, because she’d been connecting well throughout the match prior to that point. And while the second foul was a big mistake in the context of having already been on a card, the initial call that got her into trouble in the first place was softer than a lot of infractions we see in this league.
And ultimately, going down a player with a little less than a half hour to go didn’t really hurt the Red Stars, in part due to their ability to bring on McCaskill. Nikki Stanton put in a good shift in the place of the ill Vanessa DiBernardo, and Orlando wasn’t presenting a significant threat to the center-back pairing of Ertz and Tierna Davidson, so when the Red Stars went down a player, they felt confident in bringing McCaskill on to keep pushing for that breakthrough goal.
Which, quite frankly, almost never came! The Pride did very little with the player advantage, but the Red Stars still couldn’t find daylight until their backs were entirely against the wall. A draw would’ve been a disaster. They’re in the middle of an incredibly tight race to the NWSL postseason, and they’ve given themselves very little room to drop results, certainly not against the worst team in the league.
But then, for perhaps the first time this season, the team came together at the death of the match to overcome that tough luck. Julie Ertz took over, dribbling the ball off a Pride corner kick up all the way to midfield, catching the overlapping run of sub Zoey Goralski. Goralski then sent the ball into the box, out of Casey Short’s reach.
But Short didn’t give up, getting the ball back to get a shot off, which was deflected out of the box to Sarah Gorden. Gorden then directed the ball out to Kerr, who was looking to send it back in for one final shot at a win. The Pride had no idea Short was cutting back in, and the (say it with me) clear Defender of the Year leader headed the ball into the back of the net at close range with 30 seconds left in stoppage time.
The Red Stars winning this match is not a surprise, but in the context of the history of the club it feels significant in a number of ways. One of those is that they won this match because they had no other choice, because they’ve put themselves in a position that they haven’t been in for a number of years. Struggling in earlier stages of this season means they have to be precise now, and they’re responding.
The other is that we are all bearing witness to an incredible run by Casey Short. She was left off a World Cup roster from which she didn’t need to be excluded, and her response to that was to work hard, develop her game, and trust that good things would come from that.
It’s not always true that sporting glory happens to the good people, but her goal last night was not only an example of the benefits of hard work, but of the occasional ability for the exact right person to do the exact right thing at the exact right time. It’s the kind of thing that fires people up. Hopefully Chicago can carry it over.
The Chicago Red Stars (11W 2D 8L, 35pts, 3rd place) continue their hard sprint to the postseason on Sunday on the road against Sky Blue FC.