The Chicago Red Stars are still looking for their first win of the NWSL Challenge Cup. If it’s going to come on Sunday, it’ll be at the expense of the defending champions.
After an opening match loss to the Washington Spirit, and a hard-fought scoreless draw with the Portland Thorns, the Red Stars face the North Carolina Courage at 11:30 a.m. CT, in the club’s third match in eight days.
“I think there’s always pressure when you’re playing North Carolina,” Red Stars forward Kealia Watt said. “They’re obviously incredible. But one thing that I love about this team, and the reason that I’m so excited to be on the Red Stars is just that tough, gritty attitude that they’ve always had, so that’s what we’re focusing on going into the game. Just, toughness.”
Coach Rory Dames used two completely different lineups in the first two matches—a more veteran side in the first match (with a few debutants mixed in), and a very young team for the second match (anchored by Savannah McCaskill, who put in a very strong performance wearing the armband.)
So what should we expect in match three? Here are five questions we have going into this rematch of the 2019 NWSL final:
What will the lineup look like?
Dames admitted after the late schedule change, he divided his team into two, 14 player groups. Regardless of the situation, he had all the subs in the first two matches “scripted” ahead of time, giving a lot of time to players that hadn’t previously played much at all. Two of those—the centerback pairing of Kayla Sharples and Hannah Davison, anchored the defense during Wednesday’s match, which saw Portland constantly putting dangerous balls into the Red Stars 18-yard box.
“We basically split our group into two groups, which, thank God will change tomorrow,” Dames said in response to a question from reporter Charles Olney. “As soon as that schedule change came, maybe everybody doesn’t think it was a big deal, but it was a huge deal based off how we’d been preparing. We basically split our group into 14 and 14, and they’ve had two different training schedules, two different periodizations, one group could get ready for the first game, one group could get ready for the second game, and we’ll find a balance in the third game based on what we had written out.”
So what will Sunday’s lineup look like? It’ll probably be very close, if not identical, to what we saw in the opening match against the Spirit.
Will Tierna Davidson see any minutes?
The USWNT defender is still listed as questionable on the latest injury report. Danielle Colaprico, who is also nursing an injury, went 45 minutes on Wednesday before being subbed off at the half. If Davidson is ready to play, Dames will likely want to ease her in so she’s healthy for the quarterfinals, as he did with Colaprico. If Tierna is ready to play, coming on as a 70th minute sub might be the right move.
Will Kealia Watt break through with her first goal or assist?
Watt looked dangerous in the opening match in her debut with the team. She was strong and confident, dribbling at defenders on the wings, and showed fans why Dames was raving about her before the tournament began. On Sunday, she’s looking for an even better outing.
“I want to have more of an impact against North Carolina,” Watt said. “Now that we have that first game under our belt, just being a little more composed on the ball, and producing. It’s about getting assists and goals, and Sunday will be a good challenge for us.”
Will Yuki Nagasato find her way as a Number 9?
Nagasato is one of the league’s most intelligent, creative attackers. But against the Spirit, she didn’t make a big impact. Why? It’s not so much the position—she’s played striker before—it’s likely the fact that she’s getting used to her new teammates. For much of the match, she was playing next to two newcomers—Watt and Rachel Hill.
“I think each game, each day of practice, we’re getting each other’s movements more and more,” Watt said of Nagasato. “She’s incredible, and I feel so excited and lucky to play with her.”
How is the team doing mentally?
Last Saturday’s game started with Julie Ertz embracing a crying Casey Short, as the two knelt during the national anthem to support the Black Lives Matter movement. Dames said it clearly had an impact on Short’s play in the first half, before she turned the corner and was her usual self in the second half.
Dames said the team was emotionally spent before the opener, and has continued to have difficult conversations since then. That’s good, because people (and teams) grow by dealing with issues directly. The Red Stars should be their usual, mentally tough selves against North Carolina. It may not result in three points, but the team will definitely be building in the right direction ahead of match four against the Utah Royals, and the quarterfinals after that.