On the final day of the season, the Chicago Red Stars defeated the Orlando Pride, 1-0, at Exploria Stadium. Kealia Watt’s second-half goal was the difference, and it ensured that Chicago would host an opponent to be determined in the quarterfinals of the NWSL Playoffs. The Red Stars became the first team in NWSL history to reach the playoffs on six consecutive occasions, having finished in the top four every season since 2015.
For Chicago, there were several key absences; not only were Naeher and Ertz still injured, but the issues were worsened by the lack of availability for Katie Johnson, Sarah Woldmoe, and Casey Krueger. Tatumn Milazzo came into the lineup at right-back, and Danielle Colaprico returned to the lineup for the first time since mid-August.
The visiting Red Stars were the dominant team in the opening half, attempting 11 shots before the Pride could find their first. However, none of them found their target. Mallory Pugh displayed her excellent on-ball ability on numerous occasions; in the 7th minute, she wove through several defenders before shooting just wide. She found space in the final third again in the 23rd minute but again could not get the shot on target. As frustration began to grow, Kealia Watt had a pair of shots thwarted in the 26th and 34th minutes.
In the closing minutes of the first half, Orlando caught a brief spell of momentum. Gunnhildur Jónsdóttir had one of the chances of the game when the ball found her open inside the box, but she fired wide. Arin Wright also had to battle Alex Morgan to keep the ball out of the net right before the interval.
The front three of the Red Stars found it difficult to convert chances in the final third, with only 2 of the team’s 10 shots threatening the goalkeeper. “We just needed one moment of one of them doing special,” said Red Stars head coach Rory Dames when referring to the attacking line.
The moment of magic came in the 65th minute, when Morgan Gautrat found Kealia Watt inside the penalty box, with plenty of space to work. Watt cut the ball onto her right foot and blasted the ball in at the far post. It was her fifth goal of the season; she passed Mallory Pugh to become the team’s top goalscorer the year. Gautrat, whose stellar performances have gone somewhat under the radar this season, also deserves a lot of credit for the assist; it was her first of the season.
Cassie Miller made a late save to keep the Red Stars in front, stopping Australian international Emily van Egmond from scoring a long-range equalizer. The save secured not only the win but also a guaranteed home playoff game. “Her growth has been really good,” says Dames. “Cassie’s really stepped up and has gotten us into the top four and given us a home game.”
Now, the Red Stars will have to keep an eye on the other games this weekend to find out who they will be playing in the quarterfinal next week. It will be either Washington, Gotham, Houston, or North Carolina.