The good news going into Wednesday’s semi-final match with Sky Blue FC was that the Red Stars had only conceded three goals through 5 games. The bad news, they had only scored two on their own.
However, throughout the tournament, Red Stars coach Rory Dames kept insisting his team was close to breaking through offensively. With two goals in the opening 11 minutes and adding a third at the hour mark, it is safe to say he was correct.
Sky Blue got back into the game late with two goals in 5 minutes, but the Red Stars went back to their stout ways defensively and held on to advance to the NWSL Challenge Cup final with a 3-2 victory over Sky Blue FC.
The Red Stars started the game on the front foot with several chances and continued pressure on the Sky Blue goal. They were rewarded eight minutes in when Katie Johnson played Bianca St. Georges into the penalty area. St. Georges made a deft cut back past a sliding Gina Lewandowski and slipped an outside of the right foot shot off the inside of the left post to give the Red Stars the lead.
Despite being a player truly coming into her own during the NWSL Challenge Cup, scoring that quickly even caught St. Georges off guard.
“Obviously getting a goal on early gave me confidence,” St. Georges said, “But, I think I was more surprised than anything.”
The Red Stars struck again three minutes later. This time Rachel Hill cleaned up an attempted clearance header from Sky Blue defender Erica Skorski to double the Red Stars lead.
After the initial onslaught over the first 20 minutes, Sky Blue grew into the game and took control over the final 25 minutes of the first half. In fact, Sky Blue had 63% of the possession in the first half.
“We were playing well after that sorta first spell,” Sky Blue Head Coach Freya Coombe said. “After we conceded the two goals early, we started to play really well and we were certainly possessing well and dominating the game, but just couldn’t put that final connection, that final piece together.”
During halftime, Dames let his frustrations be known with the performance of his starting No. 10, Savannah McCaskill
“I wasn’t happy with Savannah at half time,” Dames said. “…and made no secret of that in the locker room and challenged her a little bit.”
McCaskill regained the coach’s faith in the 60th minute when she started and finished off a counter-attacking break across the Rio Tinto Stadium field to give the Red Stars a 3-0 lead.
“It was an unbelievable run,” Dames gushed. “The distance she travelled at speed. She brought the defender in, gave Bianca a good way to pass it, and changed her angle to get it back, and it’s a quality finish. I was really happy for her.”
Twelve minutes later, Sky Blue started their comeback when a corner kick from Sarah Woldmoe found the head of McCall Zerboni. Zerboni headed it into the ground where it skipped up and found the head of Evelyne Viens, who was standing unmarked about 3 yards from the Red Stars goal line. Viens headed it past the right shoulder of Alyssa Naeher to bring Sky Blue back into the game.
Dames felt the first goal would serve as a learning opportunity for his side.
“The way they even got the corner kick was poor by us,” Dames said. “We shut off a bit. On the corner kick, not only do we give a free header, we don’t clear the post. The player stays on the post. The girl [Vines] is onside in front of Alyssa. Those are learning moments.”
Lightning struck again just five minutes later. Midge Purce used pace to get past Zoey Goralski and dribbled to the end line. Her cross went right to Red Stars captain Julie Ertz. Ertz showed she is human after all. Her left footed clearance attempt went off her right leg and back into Red Stars goal to cut the lead to 3-2.
For the final 15 minutes, the Red Stars reverted to its stout form of the previous 5 games allowing Sky Blue to have a lot of possession, particularly in the Red Stars half, but the chances were minimal.
According to Dames, he feels the added expenditure needed to see the game out could come back to haunt his team in the final.
“We made it a lot harder on ourselves than we needed to,” stated Dames. “I’m sure we’ll pay the price for that, that part of the game on Sunday from the extra effort we needed to put in at the end.”
That extra effort made by players not expected to feature this deep into the tournament was appreciated by Coach Dames.
“To see Katie Johnson grind out 90 minutes at the end. I didn’t know if we were going to have to bury her in the corner flag, or if she’d be able to get back up, but she got back up and covered back in.”
With a goal, an assist, and strong defending over the 90 minutes, Bianca St. Georges is another player Dames recognized for stepping into a larger, unexpected role.
“I thought Bianca St. Georges was outstanding tonight. What a great run out for her,” Dames said.
“She has far and away exceeded our expectations on what she’s capable of,” Dames said of St. Georges’s tournament to date.
Casey Short was a late scratch after picking up an injury during training, forcing Zoey Goralski into Short’s left back slot. Dames said he felt Casey could be ready for the final, but ultimately, that decision will be left up to Short.
Awaiting Chicago in Sunday’s final will be the only team the Red Stars haven’t faced in the tournament to date, the Houston Dash.
Woman of the Match, Savannah McCaskill knows their performance against Houston will have to be cleaner than it was against Sky Blue.
“We can’t switch off, especially going into a final, “McCaskill said. “We have to be keyed into every single moment. Whether it’s a corner kick, just being alert in any situation so we don’t give up those goals and don’t allow teams to get back into the game.”
Chicago – Naeher, Goralski (Sharples 80’), Gorden, Ertz, St. Georges, McCaskill (Doniak 79’), DiBernardo, Colaprico, Johnson, Hill (Vasconcelos 67’), Watt
Unused Subs – Bingham, Boyd, Gautrat, Davidson, Davison, Leubbert, Miller, Morse, Nagasato, Redei, Rohan, Short, Stevens
Goals – 8’ St Georges, 11’ Hill, 60’ McCaskill, 77’ (OG) Ertz