Heading into the Chicago Red Stars’ NWSL semifinal against the Portland Thorns, there was little reason for optimism. They were without their two best players, Julie Ertz and Alyssa Naeher. Their player of the season Mallory Pugh was unavailable, as were Casey Krueger and Kayla Sharples. The team's main creative output, therefore, was Kealia Watt... and she went down hurt after 25 minutes. The Red Stars had not won in Portland since 2013, and the last time these teams met at Providence Park, the hosts won 5-0.
The final score tonight? Chicago Red Stars 2, Portland Thorns 0.
Now, the Red Stars will play for their first title in Louisville against the Washington Spirit on Saturday.
“The group bends, but they don’t break,” said Head Coach Rory Dames. “When they’re on the field, there’s a high level of belief in one another. This isn’t an easy place to play tonight, and it was a great performance by the group.”
Due to all of the big absences, the Red Stars were forced to make a change of shape, shifting to a 4-4-2. Tatumn Milazzo stayed in the lineup on the right side of the backline, while Danielle Colaprico came back into the lineup in the midfield, having been dropped from the team for most recent weeks. Watt and Rachel Hill lined up as dual number nines, and Watt started the game strong, looking like a threat before she went down injured in the 25th minute.
“We’ll have to look when we get home,” said Dames with regards to the injury. The seriousness of the injury is unknown, but she was able to return to the sideline later in the match which is a positive sign.
Katie Johnson came on and made an instant impact. Vanessa DiBernardo played the ball out wide to Johnson, who beat the defender before blasting the ball in at the near post from a very tight angle.
“I saw an opening and took my shot...” said Johnson. “It was a shot, but it was a shot back post that somehow got near post,” she claimed, though it initially appeared to be a cross that would end up in the net. Bixby was caught off guard, and could not prevent the goal.
After shockingly going behind, the Thorns quickly responded. They put lots of pressure on the Red Stars immediately after the goal, and Sophia Smith led the attack, constantly putting pressure on the left-hand side. Tatumn Milazzo struggled to cope with the 21-year-old US international, and was beaten on numerous occasions, but managed to prevent her from scoring. Though Milazzo’s recent performances have been strong, Rory Dames will be hoping that Casey Krueger will return soon from her illness and be able to start on Saturday.
As the second half began, Smith continued to cause problems. She had two chances to score in the early minutes of the second half, but both missed. An equalizer seemed like it was coming... until the 59th minute.
The Red Stars found themselves with a spell of possession in the final third. Morgan Gautrat laid the ball off for Sarah Woldmoe, whose missile from 25 yards out soared past the outstretched arms of the hopeless Bella Bixby. The goal of the season contender doubled the lead and dealt a killer blow to Portland’s hopes of returning to the NWSL championship.
Gautrat got the assist on the second goal, and she was the standout performer of the night, putting in a player of the match-worthy performance. She won 21 duels and completed 10 tackles, and was the driving force that stifled the loaded Thorns attack.
The Portland players seemed to be in disbelief that they were 2-0 down to a team who had not beaten them at home in nearly a decade but continued to push for a goal to get back into the game. Rocky Rodriguez had a pair of shots saved, and Sophia Smith was practically anonymous in the latter stages. Christine Sinclair was nowhere to be seen all night and had an abysmal performance. The Thorns certainly missed Crystal Dunn, who is out due to pregnancy.
Thorns starting goalkeeper Bella Bixby, who recently received her first USWNT call up, shared that her father had tragically passed away by suicide earlier this week. She received an outpouring of support from both sets of players and supporters.
Chicago took their chances, battled for 90 minutes, and eliminated the team that was favored to win the championship. The Thorns became only the second top-seeded team to ever lose in the semifinals, with the only previous team to do so being the 2016 Thorns (at the hands of the Western New York Flash).
Looking forward now, the Red Stars will face another red-hot team, the Washington Spirit. The Spirit stunned the super-team that is the OL Reign, so, like the Red Stars, they are coming off of a big upset in Cascadia. With names such as Kelley O’Hara, Emily Sonnett, Andi Sullivan, and Trinity Rodman, as well as NWSL Golden Boot winner Ashley Hatch on the team, the Spirit will prove a formidable challenge.
Red Stars head coach Rory Dames confirmed that there is no update yet on Mallory Pugh and Kayla Sharples’ availability for the final yet. Both missed out due to COVID protocol, but Dames confirmed that both are asymptomatic. There is also yet to be an update on the return of Krueger and Watt from their respective injuries. Information on the availability of all four should be released in the coming days. The Red Stars will certainly want all four players available to put their best foot forward in Louisville, with their first championship on the line.