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Chicago Red Stars advance to NWSL Challenge Cup semifinals after penalty shootout

The Red Stars are one match away from the tournament final

2020 NWSL Challenge Cup - Quarterfinal - OL Reign FC v Chicago Red Stars Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

With just two goals in the first five NWSL Challenge Cup matches, there’s no doubt the Chicago Red Stars are struggling to score. But, with solid game plans, stout defensive performances, and a bit of luck, they find themselves one win away from the final.

Such is soccer, sometimes.

“If scoring goals was easy, everybody would do it,” Red Stars coach Rory Dames said after his team’s quarterfinal victory over OL Reign Saturday night.

After playing to a scoreless draw through 90 minutes, the Red Stars defeated OL Reign on penalties Saturday night in the NWSL Challenge Cup at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman, Utah. Chicago will take on Sky Blue FC in the semifinals Wednesday night (9 p.m. CT, CBS All Access).

The shootout opened with OL Reign’s Shirley Cruz skying her shot over the bar against Chicago’s Alyssa Naeher, who Dames calls the best goalkeeper in the world.

“When you go to PKs with Alyssa in goal, it’s hard not to feel pretty confident about what’s going to happen in the shootout,” Dames said.

For Chicago, Julie Ertz opened with a screamer to the upper 90.

“She’s confident,” Naeher said of her club and country teammate. “She steps up in that way, and just kind of sets the tone for the rest of the shootout. Just to have her open the shootout was big for us.”

Vanessa DiBernardo, Kealia Watt and Rachel Hill all bagged their attempts. OL Reign’s Lauren Barnes tried to keep her team alive, but she put her shot off Naeher’s right post, sending Chicago to the semifinal.

“It was a good win,” Watt said after the match. “A shootout is always scary. Anything can happen.”

Watt had the best chance of the match for Chicago. In the 67th minute, she dribbled by three Reign players, was clear inside the Reign six yard box, and put her shot wide left.

“I was really mad about the shot that I should have scored,” said Watt, who is still waiting for her first Red Stars goal. “I’m excited. I’m getting into positions in front of goal, but I have to put that away.”

For Watt, it’s not a matter of changing things. She said the goals will come.

“We really have to stick to the script here,” Watt said. “It’s extremely difficult when you have so many new players to get everyone on the same page. I think we’re making strides every single day, and every single practice. I think we need to stick to what we’re doing, and it will come.”

Until then, the Red Stars will have to continue to rely on Ertz and Naeher’s leadership defensively, and will need more scrappy defensive performances.

“Collectively as a whole we’ve always prided ourselves on when we need to dig down and find a result, we seem for the most part we are able to do that in important situation and it was an important situation,” Dames said.

The tournament’s top three seeds—the North Carolina Courage, Washington Spirit, and OL Reign have all been eliminated. That leaves Chicago’s next opponent, Sky Blue FC, as the highest remaining seed, something Naeher isn’t thinking about.

“Honestly, with the NWSL the seedings don’t really mean anything,” said Naeher, who made six saves for Chicago in the 90 minutes before the shootout. “Everybody’s competitive. Everybody’s a challenge in a different way, One through eight in the tournament, it’s just a number in front of the team.”

In Wednesday’s other semifinal, the Portland Thorns will face the Houston Dash. The tournament wraps up with Sunday, July 26 with the championship game on CBS.