Hello, Chicago sports fan. You might be distracted with baseball’s opening weekend, but our city has a chance to win a sports championship on Sunday.
For the second year in a row, the Chicago Red Stars—our team in the National Women’s Soccer League—is in a championship final. The Red Stars face the Houston Dash (Sunday, 11:30 a.m. CT, CBS) with a chance to win the NWSL Challenge Cup. It’s the culmination of a month-long tournament, where all (well, most, but we won’t get into that) NWSL teams went to live in quarantine in Utah.
You won’t have to search hard to watch this thing. The match is on over-the-air, network CBS. Good old Channel 2, if you’re in Chicago.
If you’re on the fence, you really should tune in. You won’t regret it. This team is Chicago’s best kept secret, and once you watch them, you’ll love them. Here are five reasons why:
Nobody is better at grinding out a win
Chicagoans love tough, gritty teams that find a way to win. This Red Stars team does it better than anyone. It’s in their DNA, and it’s been that way even before this current crop of players joined the team.
The Red Stars entered the tournament’s knockout rounds as a low, number six seed, but no worry. Chicago fought OL Reign to a shootout win in the quarterfinal, and held on to beat Sky Blue FC in a 3-2 thriller in the semifinal, to find themselves with a chance to win a trophy on Sunday.
They have the best jerseys in the city
The Red Stars’ new, white “Neighborhood Kit” has the Chicago flag on the front, with the names of all the city’s neighborhoods imbedded in the blue stripes. It started as a sketch by Chicago legend Justyne Freud, and it ended up being a thing of beauty.
The Red Stars’ blue “Elevated Kit” is even better. It has a damn map of the city on the front.
Either way, you can’t go wrong.
You already know some of their players
The team has four players from the U.S. team that won the World Cup last year. Alyssa Naeher is the best women’s soccer goalkeeper in the world. Julie Ertz is the team’s captain, best player, and one of smartest, hardest working athletes you’ll ever see in any sport, period. Ertz knows the game so well, she can help shift her teammates to kill an attack before it happens. Her “heat map” is essentially the entire field—she’s everywhere, all the time. It’s not all defense, either. Ertz can score an ugly goal better than anyone, but her opening penalty kick against OL Reign was a masterpiece of a thunder strike to the upper 90.
Two other USWNT players—Tierna Davidson and Morgan Gautrat (you might know her as Morgan Brian)—are both unfortunately battling injuries, but they’re usually key components of this Red Stars team. Finally, let me tell you about Casey Short, who was the last player to miss out on making the national team roster last summer. She’s the best 1-v-1 defender in the league. She’ll shut your ass down.
Their coach is pure Chicago
Chicagoans love their championship coaches. Phil Jackson is still a legend here, and we all still love Coach Q. And, of course, Mike Ditka’s face is still everywhere 35 years after he won anything.
Rory Dames is cut from that same cloth. He’s tough, tactically brilliant, and is always thinking big picture. For example, when other NWSL teams were going all out to win this tournament in the group stage, Rory was playing the bottom end of his roster, looking to see who could make the jump to the starting eleven. That process facilitated the emergence of Canadian outside back Bianca St. Georges, who plays with more flair than a ‘90s TGI Friday’s uniform. Dames used the opening rounds to develop more players, got the team clicking at the right time, and now they’re poised to bring home a trophy.
We’d better talk about this “NFL wife” thing.
Much like calling Julie Ertz “Zach Ertz’s wife” will get you canceled online by NWSL fans, the same is true with new Red Stars forward Kealia Watt, who happens to be married to NFL superstar and “Ultimate Tag” host JJ Watt. I’ll tell you this—both of those guys married well. Like Julie Ertz, Kealia Watt is a badass in her own right. She’s an attacker who loves to dribble at defenders—think Christian Pulisic if you’re looking for a men’s soccer comparison—but Watt’s run into some bad luck. She’s yet to score for the Red Stars since joining the team in the off season, but I predict that changes on Sunday against Houston, her former team.
Also, a note to my fellow men: if you’re one of these guys who thinks you’re too “manly” to enjoy women’s sports, take a cue from Zach Ertz and JJ Watt. If they’re both confident enough to marry and support women who are every bit as tough as they are, then maybe you can overcome the insecure tough guy crap and actually support a great Chicago team. If not, it’s your loss, meatball.
Seriously, if you’re on the fence, give the Red Stars a look on Sunday. If they win, you get to celebrate a Chicago championship. And even if they lose, they’ll battle in a way that makes you proud. They really are pure Chicago.