Chicago Red Stars 3 Brian 31’, Kerr 33’, Nagasato 80’
Leading up to Sunday afternoon, I wasn’t sure the Chicago Red Stars were going to win their final game against Sky Blue FC.
All history considered, there was no reason to think why they shouldn’t have walked out of New Jersey on Sunday evening with three points, but as this week continued the likelihood of victory seemed less and less likely.
The Red Stars were playing their third game in seven days, in a final stretch of their 2019 schedule that at times has felt vaguely inhumane. They have also seen two regular starters (Arin Wright and Vanessa DiBernardo) rendered unavailable entirely by a stomach virus. This occurred even before they lost another forward (Katie Johnson) to a red card that forced the team to play in the Florida heat with 10 on the field for almost a half hour. These are stacked odds.
And we’ve seen this season how the Red Stars both have and have not responded to adversity. They bounced back from their first loss to Sky Blue with a league-shaking five game winning streak, which was then broken by Sky Blue again when Chicago couldn’t manage the final game of a different tough road trip. The Red Stars were not going to want to lose to Sky Blue again, but the question was whether or not they could help themselves.
Turns out they were going to be fine. The Red Stars have made a few steadying adjustments coming out of the most recent international break, and they seem to have done a good job steadying their performances even when they’re hurting physically. On Sunday Chicago lined up with Tierna Davidson and Julie Ertz once again playing in a center-back pairing, which has given the Red Stars a great amount of stability when they’ve been pressing against weaker teams. They also occasionally had Danny Colaprico sitting back as a deep-lying No. 6 in a three-back that allowed Casey Short and Sarah Gorden to get as far up the field as they needed to to help usher in Chicago’s attack.
In order to deal with the missing Wright, DiBernardo, and Johnson, the Red Stars slotted Savannah McCaskill in the No. 10 role, with Morgan Brian connecting and pushing forward as the No. 8. They then rounded out the front three with Brooke Elby up top with Yuki Nagasato and Sam Kerr.
In all honesty however, the player that kept Chicago in the game long enough to take control was really Alyssa Naeher. Sky Blue was able to get in behind the Red Stars defense at times, but Naeher was able to make good enough decisions to keep Carli Lloyd and co. from putting Chicago in a deficit that they would not have had the legs to get themselves out of.
This stability allowed Chicago to keep probing for the final pass to get them in the lead, and they finally found it in the 31st minute when Kerr made a selfless run after an overhit pass to send the ball back in behind her for Brian to send into the net to notch her first goal in the NWSL (a remarkable stat). With DiBernardo out, Brian filled much of that connecting role on Sunday, propelling the ball forward but also making runs herself to make sure the Red Stars had multiple dangerous options going forward.
Only two minutes later the Red Stars had doubled their lead behind a classic Nagasato to Kerr pass and run, with Kerr hitting the ball in between Kailen Sheridan’s legs with her left foot to give Chicago a little bit of room to breathe.
Even after halftime, Sky Blue found ways to live dangerously in Chicago’s box, but the Red Stars did just enough to keep the home team from hurting them too severely, and they managed their substitute minutes well. The argument for precision early, and a big difference maker between this game and the last two against this opponent is that the Red Stars could control the tempo from a winning position, and panic never set in.
Chicago closed the game out in the 80th minute, when Zoey Goralski (who’s having a heck of a week in an impact substitute role) sent in a beautiful pass off the outside of her foot to Yuki Nagasato, who capped the night off with the final goal of the match.
As with all of Chicago’s streaks, I’m not entirely sure why some things are working right now where other things this season have not. But I have some guesses: Morgan Brian and Danny Colaprico really are healthy, for real this time. Kerr’s rapport with Nagasato and DiBernardo is well documented but she’s developing a great one with Brian in real-time. Davidson and Ertz aren’t perfect in the back but they keep offenses honest in a way that shores up one of the Red Stars biggest weaknesses on the counter-attack. Savannah McCaskill is starting to settle in.
All of these things are good for a Red Stars team that looks poised once again to make the postseason. If all arrows point to a semi-final, we’ll have to start figuring out whether or not these good things means they’re ready to get over the top this time. For now though, the season has been pulled back from disaster and the order of things have settled down. It’s a nice feeling.
The Chicago Red Stars (12W 2D 8L, 38pts, 2nd place) will be back in action at home against the Washington Spirit at SeatGeek Stadium on September 21st at 7pm CT.