Chicago Red Stars 2 DiBernardo 40’, Nagasato 85’
Utah Royals FC 1 Press 42’
The Chicago Red Stars won their regular season finale against the Utah Royals on Saturday evening, capping off their second five-game winning streak of the season.
But, in all honesty, the Red Stars didn’t play that well.
The team had clinched their 2019 playoff spot the previous weekend, but the squad that came out against Utah looked like they were in preseason, and less like a sharp group ready to take on the playoffs. With the Royals in a must-win position, Chicago was happy to sit back for much of the first half to absorb whatever pressure Utah was going to build up to open the scoring.
For the most part that pressure never came. Utah’s pace was very methodical, taking their time passing the ball out of the back, and smothering what Sam Kerr was trying to do going forward. For a while it seemed like very little was going to come of this game, for either side.
But then Vanessa DiBernardo, back after missing three games with illness, sent a rocket in from distance to beat Nicole Barnhart in the 40th minute to wake everybody up. DiBernardo doesn’t score a ton of goals every year, but every single one she scores, she absolutely nails. This was one of the nicest individual goals of the year for Chicago, and they’ve scored quite a few very good ones.
Unfortunately for the Red Stars, this also woke up Utah. The appropriate amount of things have been said about Christen Press playing against her old club for the first time, but if anything Chicago should’ve known how quickly she can take over a game. Not one minute after DiBernardo put the Red Stars on top, Press equalized (with her head!) to bring the scoreline level. Press is the type of player that can change a match by refusing to lose, and she was working very hard to propel her team forward.
This continued for much of the second half. Press was ducking back into the Utah midfield to generate play, she was trying to get open to receive service on breakaways, and she had the Royals on the front foot as the game wound to a close.
And like I said, Chicago didn’t play all that well. Sam Kerr struggled to get any separation from the Utah central defense, and the midfield seemed to revert back to touches that one would expect from a team that hadn’t played together in a while, and not one that was finishing up its fifth game in three weeks.
But maybe that’s the whole thing, isn’t it. Chicago isn’t immune to mental lapses, especially when they’re reaching the end of a long grinding schedule. It looked like they set up to absorb Utah’s game-plan, but then got a bit shaken up when they weren’t able to do much more than that. The Red Stars have never historically done well in their season finales, and they don’t always retain that killer instinct when their backs aren’t against the wall.
But hey, they won this game anyway. Against the run of play, Kerr used her one moment to breathe to get in behind the Utah defense, after receiving a nice pass from Katie Johnson. Kerr’s initial shot was saved, but Yuki Nagasato was right there making a cleanup run to tap the ball in and give Chicago a late, unlikely lead.
So the Red Stars got their win, and they might’ve given themselves enough space to get that home semifinal. And despite the current form of the squad being a concern, it’s a testament to how they’ve grown this season that they were able to get all three points from a disjointed performance like this one.
The defense got stretched, but they held on just enough. Sam Kerr got taken out of the game, until she took the one shot she was given. Vanessa DiBernardo saw a patch of open space and she hoofed it all the way to goal. Good teams win games when things are working, but great teams win when they aren’t. I don’t know what this means for a one-off playoff game in three weeks, but a team that takes its chances will always have a shot.
But let me also briefly say that I do know what this moment means for this group. I’ve said all season that this has to be the year for these players to win it all, and there was nothing from Saturday night that dissuaded me from that feeling. Sam Kerr doesn’t want to talk about her future, but other people do, and I don’t think that Chicago fans are going to have the benefit of not having to think about what is coming next until the season’s over. It’s perhaps a blessing that for now we don’t know enough to talk about change in concrete terms, so all I’ll say is that we know its coming.
Whether it’s through an expansion draft, players moving on, or whatever other moves Rory Dames has up his sleeve, this is it for this group. At the end of their regular season, that’s a bittersweet feeling, but there’s also a new hope of possibility. This era is almost over, backs are to the wall now, so let’s extend it as long as we possibly can.
Chicago (14W 2D 8L, 44pts, 2nd place) will (still) mostly likely play a semifinal against the Portland Thorns on October 20th, at SeatGeek Stadium.