At the end of the bumpy and winding road that was the 2020 National Women’s Soccer League season, the Chicago Red Stars weren’t able to finish their journey quite as they hoped.
In their final match of the NWSL Fall Series on Saturday afternoon in Montclair, New Jersey, they fell 3-1 to Sky Blue FC. The hosts scored all three of their goals in the first half, the first and third by Paige Monaghan on crosses by Midge Purce and the second by Ifeoma Onumonu on a cross from Monaghan. The Red Stars got a late consolation goal from Morgan Gautrat, heading in a Tierna Davidson free kick in the 89th minute.
“It was nice to finally score on a set piece, I think it’s been like six years since we did that so we’ll find small victories out of what went on today,” said Red Stars coach Rory Dames with a chuckle after the game.
As for the goals they conceded, all three were starkly similar: a ball played in-behind a Red Stars fullback and then crossed toward the far post where it was easily finished off. Dames did not pull punches for his defenders’ struggles in preventing such chances.
“Good names on the back of the shirt don’t necessarily make a good lineup,” he said of his back-four, three of whom will join the United States Women’s National team next week for a training camp.
Dames was also forgiving, however, pointing to the limited minutes that Tierna Davidson and Casey Short have had in the Fall Series and chalking up the defensive errors to a lack of form more than anything else.
“In a normal game, in a normal rotation, those balls that are played in behind us...we deal with those before the service comes,” Dames said.
The 3-0 halftime scoreline could have been even worse for Chicago, as in the 11th minute, with the game still level at 0-0, Tierna Davidson was shown a red card for a tackle on Midge Purce allegedly for the denial of an obvious goalscoring opportunity. However, it was clear that both Sarah Gorden and Casey Short were still in position to make a play. The call was overturned after a consultation with an assistant referee and a strong, unified talking-to from the Red Stars directed at the referee led by Gorden and goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher.
“A little bit of our Chicago came out because we did not agree with that call,” Gordon said. “We had two defenders behind the ball, so we had a few words for the ref and thank God he reversed it because it would have been a long game with 10 players.”
Unfortunately, it turned out to be a long game anyway despite the Red Stars keeping a full roster of players on the field. In addition to his critiques of the defense, Dames criticized his team’s play with the ball as well.
“You can’t get behind the line if your midfield doesn’t play forwards,” Dames said of Danielle Colaprico, Morgan Gautrat, and Vanessa DiBernardo’s performances. “Our midfielders played a lot of sideways and backwards today...I’m sure their passing percentages were great, but we were never dangerous in the first half.”
On either side of that midfield, the width was being mostly supplied by Bianca St. Georges on the right and Sarah Luebbert on the left. St. Georges was one of the standouts of the Challenge Cup, while Luebbert was excellent in the first three games of the Fall Series. Dames said he was frustrated with how often both players gave the ball away in the first half, but sees it as an enormous compliment to both that they were even in a position to make such mistakes.
“If you would have told me back in March that Sarah Luebbert and Bianca [St. Goerges] were gonna be a big part of our build I probably wouldn’t have thought that,” Dames said. “So the fact that they’ve come this far and they both earned the right to be in the lineup today, they worked hard over the last seven to ten days for that. I think the experience today for them will be good because we haven’t even had enough players to move people in and out based on performance as much as survival.”
As for why Sky Blue presented such a challenge in this match, Gorden said the defense was surprised by how different an approach the opposing attackers took than in the game the teams played back on September 20th (a 4-1 Red Stars win). By the time they had adjusted, it was too late.
“Instead of pressing us, the center-backs, when we were coming out from the back and got the ball from Alyssa, they let the center-backs have the ball,” Gorden said. “We always have a little trouble when teams lay off us and we’re not breaking a press, because we actually have to figure out how we can get around it.”
Despite a disappointing outcome on the day, the attitude from the team was undoubtedly positive as 2020 comes to a close. The path has been far from straight and often hard to see, but Rory Dames sounded both pleased with his team and confident in what they’ll go on to achieve.
“I think if you look at where we started to where we finished, the amount of players we’ve had that have given impactful minutes to the team, I think we’re in a great spot,” said Dames. “Heading into the preseason I think for sure we go 2 deep or 3 deep with players that are good enough to play in this league in 9 out of the 11 positions for us. So we feel pretty good about what we set out to do.”