In a game where new players saw their first NWSL action for the Chicago Red Stars, and Morgan Gautrat scored her first goal with her married name on her back, it was an image before the game even started that mattered most.
As most of the team took a knee during the national anthem to honor the Black Lives Matter movement, the image of Julie Ertz holding Casey Short, who were both in tears, was powerful and is telling.
“It’s been an incredibly emotional day for our entire team,” Red Stars coach Rory Dames said after the match. “Probably one of the reasons it took us 50 minutes to get into the game.”
As for the game itself, Dames summed it up by saying, “We gave away two bad goals,” in a 2-1 defeat to the Washington Spirit.
Because all eight teams will quality for the NWSL Challenge Cup quarterfinals, Dames said going into the match he would start new players, and “script” his substitutions ahead of time. He kept his word on both, giving Bianca St. Georges and Zoe Morse their first NWSL starts.
The first goal game in the eighth minute, after a bad turnover from Casey Short which allowed Ashley Hatch to move in 1v1 on Alyssa Naeher. Naeher made a great initial save, only to have Rose Lavelle lurking in the penalty area, and she made no mistake on the rebound putting it top shelf to give the Spirit the lead.
Short is one of the team’s most reliable players, but in the first half, she clearly wasn’t herself.
“Casey? Listen, Casey’s one of the sweetest people in the world. Ferocious on the field. I still think she’s the best defensive outside back in the league,” Dames said of Short. “I think she had a hard time in the first half for obvious reasons.”
For the Red Stars attack in the first half, the common theme was to play the ball on the flanks to Kealia Watt, and let her create chances with crosses or take on defenders 1v1. However, Watt had the best chance on the receiving end of a through ball from St. Georges on the left flank that would have created a goal, but was ultimately pulled back for offside by the assistant referee.
The rest of the attack was largely invisible in the first half.
“In the first half every time Morgan (Gautrat) or Vanessa (DiBernardo) got the ball, the first touch was backwards or sideways,” Dames said. “So, even when we broke one of their lines, we let them come back under. But, we’re also trying to play through those guys a lot more, so it’s gonna take time, and today was day one.”
The defensive pairing of Morse and Sarah Gorden struggled in the first 45 to keep Ashley Hatch from getting behind them, forcing Naeher to come up big multiple times.
“Zoe will have some good film to learn some lessons from the difference from college to here,” Dames said.
Washington struck again so quickly to start the second half that Dames missed the goal.—“I was talking to the players about warming up... but it sounds like it wasn’t very good.”
He was right. A disastrous give away by Naeher less than 30 seconds into the second half allowed Hatch to tap the ball into the empty goal for a 2-0 lead.
That goal seemed to wake up the Red Stars. From then on, they created several dangerous chances coming via overlapping runs by Short and St. Georges.
It paid off for the Red Stars in the 51st minute, when U.S. International Gautrat (formerly known as Morgan Brian—she secretly switched to her married last name to surprise her husband) put a shot far post after being sprung on a through ball by DiBernardo.
The name on the back may have changed, but @moeebrian's skills are still level.— NWSL (@NWSL) June 28, 2020
Morgan Gautrat has @chiredstarsPR right back in this one.
1-2 | #CHIvWAS
Tune in now on @CBSAllAccess and @Twitch. pic.twitter.com/d4nVo0cqIK
From there, the Red Stars kept the pressure up, but could never find the equalizer. Washington and USWNT No. 10 Rose Lavelle felt the same way.
“We had to weather the storm, definitely, in the second half,” Lavelle said. “So on one end it was great because we had to weather the storm, but on the other end I think we needed to keep the ball more and maintain possession.”
The best chance to equalize came when Katie Johnson sent a ball through for St. Georges, but she was robbed by 2019 NWSL Goalkeeper of the Year, Aubrey Bledsoe, late in the match.
St. Georges had a strong debut for the Red Stars, but sage advice from her teammates helped her through it.
“I was nervous, but at the same time, they told me to have fun, play, not think too much about it,” St. Georges said.
A bit of good news—-Danielle Colaprico, who was listed as questionable with a right ankle injury, saw a few minutes of action toward the end of the match.
One other note—during the anthem protest, Rachel Hill was the only Red Stars starter who chose not to kneel. She took a lot of heat for it online, but Red Stars owner Arnim Whisler defended her choice, writing on Twitter it’s wrong to “make kneeling a litmus test for whether you care about BLM.”
Remember how making it a mandatory thing to stand during the anthem was wrong? Of course it was. It’s just as wrong to make kneeling a litmus test for whether you care about BLM. Some people come to different conclusions about the anthem and I support their right to do so.— arnim (@arnimiii) June 28, 2020
For the Red Stars, there won’t be a lot of time to dwell on the loss. Chicago will be back in action Wednesday morning against the Portland Thorns. Portland also dropped its opener 2-1, after losing on a last-minute goal to North Carolina Courage.