The Chicago Red Stars went down a goal early, and were never able to recover in a 2-0 loss that saw the Houston Dash crowned champions of the NWSL Challenge Cup.
For the second straight season, the Red Stars are the league’s runners-up.
On a counter-attack in the fourth minute, tournament MVP Rachel Daly sprung Kristie Mewis on the left flank. Mewis beat Red Stars defender Kayla Sharples around the left corner, which caused Sharples to pull on Mewis’s shoulder, bringing Mewis to the Rio Tinto Stadium turf. Sharples earned a yellow card for the foul and Houston earned an early penalty kick.
Sophie Schmidt stepped up to the spot and sent Red Stars Goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher the wrong way, giving Houston a 1-0 lead.
Earned by @KristieMewie, converted by @sophieschmidt13 @HoustonDash lead early!— NWSL (@NWSL) July 26, 2020
1-0 | #HOUvCHI
Tune in now on @CBS, @CBSAllAccess, and @Twitch.#NWSLChallengeCup pic.twitter.com/eXlO2npkkL
“You don’t lose a game because of one mistake in the fifth minute, when there’s 85 minutes left in the game,” Red Stars coach Rory Dames said of Sharples’ foul after the match. “It was a big moment, the play happened, she’ll learn from it, and she’ll be better because of it as we move forward.”
For the next 85 minutes, Houston was content to defend, and the Red Stars were never able to find the equalizer. Chicago forward Rachel Hill was called offside five times in the match, killing several quality chances for the Red Stars.
Other than the three-goal performance in the semifinal, Chicago struggled offensively for the entire month-long tournament, something that’s not surprising with so many new attacking players.
“It takes time to establish attacking DNA, and really learn relationships with other players when our whole front line is new playing together,” said Savannah McCaskill said, who had a couple of Chicago’s only decent chances, including a shot off the post in the 14th minute. “If we had an eight month season, you have so much more time to develop that.”
As the time ticked on, Houston kept compact defensively, and Chicago struggled to push forward trying to create a chance on the attack.
“When you get up a goal, especially in heat, it’s nice for the team to be able to hang back, and not have to push forward for a goal,” Chicago captain Juile Ertz said of Houston’s strategy.
Scenes in Utah! @sheabayy2 rounds Naeher and slots it home!— NWSL (@NWSL) July 26, 2020
2-0 | #HOUvCHI
Tune in now on @CBS, @CBSAllAccess, and @Twitch.#NWSLChallengeCup pic.twitter.com/p94ceFM8jX
In second half stoppage time, Houston doubled the lead when Shea Groom got in behind the pressing Chicago back line, on a pass from Daly. Groom dribbled around Naeher 30 yards from the goal and passed the ball into the net, with Sarah Gorden not quite able recover in time.
Former Red Stars defender Katie Naughton played all 90 minutes for Houston, helping earn a clean sheet against her former club.
“Katie Naughton is an unbelievable human being,” Dames said. “While I’m disappointed we lost, I did find some comfort seeing her so excited and celebrating with her new team, so there’s a little solace in that.”
The loss is probably the last time the Red Stars will play in 2020. While MLS, the NWSL’s men’s soccer counterpart, is likely going to attempt a regular season played in local markets, it doesn’t appear the NWSL will do that with the COVID-19 pandemic still going on.
Whenever the Red Stars return, Dames said his team will be ready to make another title run.
“I think we feel real good about what we’re gonna look like,” he said, emphatically.
Chicago’s Starting XI: Naeher, St Georges (Bingham 89’), Ertz, Gorden, Sharples (Goralski 68’), Colaprico, McCaskill (Doniak 78’), DiBernardo, Watt, Johnson (Morse 79’), Hill
Injured: Short, Nagasato, Gautrat, Davidson, Stevens, Mautz, Wright