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Eyes on the Prize | Chicago vs Washington NWSL Championship Preview

After coming so close so many times, the Red Stars have a shot at their first title on Saturday.

Shaina Benhiyoun

Over the last seven years, the Chicago Red Stars have been the most consistent team in the NWSL. Despite making the playoffs every season since 2015, and contesting two finals in the last two years, they still have an empty trophy cabinet. They will have a chance to win their first NWSL championship in the early hours of Saturday afternoon, as they will take on the Washington Spirit in Louisville.

“We know what it’s like to be in this game, and we know what it’s like to end up on the wrong side of this game,” said Red Stars head coach Rory Dames. The Red Stars lost 4-0 in the 2019 championship game, in which the team seemed unprepared for the final against North Carolina despite a fantastic roster and regular season. “2019 has really stuck with us, and has driven us through the last two years.”

Road to the Championship

A few months ago, a Red Stars vs Spirit final would have seemed very unlikely. Even when the playoff bracket was dropped, it seemed like destiny that there would be an all-Cascadia matchup between the Portland Thorns and the OL Reign. However, both of the top two seeds stumbled at home in the semifinals against more efficient eastern opposition, which set up an unprecedented 3rd vs 4th matchup for the Championship game.

The Red Stars entered the season with a lot of question marks. They still had not found a goalscorer to truly replace the world-class striker that was Sam Kerr, who left for Chelsea after the 2019 season. The team was very reliant on captain Julie Ertz, who was injured on the opening day of the regular season and missed the entire year. With numerous absences throughout the year, the team constantly had to adjust both tactically and mentally. And still, through all that, the team got better as the season went on.

“I’m very proud of the group and what they’ve been able to overcome this year,” said Dames. Injuries were just one thing that the team had to overcome. The team’s depth has been one of the team’s positive surprises; goalkeeper Cassie Miller stepped up during the Olympics while Alyssa Naeher was in Tokyo, and continued to impress as the #1 Naeher was ruled out for the season. In the last few weeks, rookie Tatumn Milazzo has stepped up in place of Casey Krueger, who has been out due to sickness. In the most difficult game of the season, a semifinal on the road against regular-season champion Portland, the Red Stars won with four starters out.

In that semifinal, the Red Stars crushed the Shield winners, winning 2-0. Katie Johnson came in as an early substitute and scored what would prove to be the decisive goal. A long-range missile from Sarah Woldmoe doubled the advantage to put the game beyond reach in the second half. It was the Red Stars’ first win at Providence Park in nearly a decade, and it extended the Red Stars’ winning streak to five games.

While the Red Stars have won their last five, the Spirit are unbeaten in eight. After an inconsistent spring and a poor summer, the Spirit, like the Red Stars, found a strong run of form in September and October to earn a playoff spot.

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Washington fired their coach, Richie Burke, in August, and named their assistant coach, Kris Ward, as interim head coach. Ward, whose previous head coaching job was with the varsity boys team at a small high school in Los Angeles, has guided the Spirit to 3rd place, and to their first final since 2016. They have only lost twice during his tenure.

The Spirit has been defensively sound, with nine shutouts this season. Their defense has been led by World Cup winners Emily Sonnett and Kelley O’Hara, while Andi Sullivan has been a key player in locking down the midfield.

The team has been resilient to overcome challenges both on the field and off the field; former head coach Richie Burke was investigated following accusations of verbal and emotional abuse in August, and he was subsequently suspended by the league and fired. The team dramatically improved on the field after he left, and have been the most in-form team in the league since September.

The Spirit defeated the defending champion North Carolina Courage 1-0 in the quarterfinals thanks to a late extra-time goal from Ashley Hatch and came from behind to stun the stacked OL Reign 2-1 in the semifinal. Goals from 19-year-old Trinity Rodman and 22-year-old Ashley Sanchez secured the win for what is a team with lots of young stars with bright futures.

The Red Stars won two of their three meetings with Washington this season.
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Players to Watch

Throughout the year, Dames got the best out of his players, specifically Mallory Pugh. Pugh has struggled with injuries over the last few years, which has been one of the main obstacles preventing her from reaching her sky-high potential. However, this year, she has transformed into an MVP contender and was the team’s leading contributor with 5 goals and 4 assists. Her majestic finish in the quarterfinal against Gotham sent the Red Stars into the semifinals. Pugh brings a spark in the final third which few other attackers have this season, and though she missed the semifinal due to COVID protocol, she is back in training ahead of the final. Pugh played for the Spirit 40 times between 2017 and 2019, before she was traded to Sky Blue and subsequently ended up in Chicago during the last offseason.

Morgan Gautrat has been the most underrated performer for the Red Stars this season. Operating in both defensive and attacking midfield roles throughout the year, she has been the team’s key to winning games. She has created 29 chances over the course of the season and helped the Red Stars shine in transition.

Shaina Benhiyoun

The backline has also been their biggest strength. Sarah Gorden has had the best season of her career playing in central defense, which made her an NWSL Defensive Player of the Year nominee and earned her Team of the Season honors. The aforementioned Tatumn Milazzo has had an excellent first year filling in as a right back; she was named Red Stars Rookie of the Year. That being said, Milazzo struggled going up against Portland’s Sophia Smith last week in the semifinal. With NWSL Rookie of the Year Trinity Rodman and Golden Boot winner Ashley Hatch expected to provide a similar attacking threat, Milazzo will have to have a big game and improve on last week’s performance.

Trinity Rodman, the daughter of former Chicago Bull Dennis Rodman, has taken the league by storm after being the #2 overall pick in the draft this year. With 6 goals and 6 assists, it is no surprise that she was named Rookie of the Year and is knocking on the door of a national team call-up. She has already scored against the Red Stars this season on two separate occasions.

Another player to watch is Ashley Hatch. Hatch is won the Golden Boot for the NWSL this year, scoring 10 goals. The 26-year-old provides a pacy attacking threat and is a lethal finisher. Midfielder Andi Sullivan has been one of the best midfielders in the league this year operating in a similar role to the Red Stars’ Gautrat, and familiar names such as Emily Sonnett and Kelley O’Hara also make up the Spirit’s roster, which is a mix of youth and experience.

Squad Notes

The Red Stars will be without 4 players for the final. It is no surprise that Julie Ertz and Alyssa Naeher continue to be out; Ertz was injured on the opening day of the season against Portland and has not played in the NWSL since. Naeher was injured in the USWNT’s Olympic Semifinal against Canada, and though she is close to a comeback, she won’t be available in time for the Championship game.

Casey Krueger is also out. She came down with an illness a few weeks ago, and it seems she is still yet to recover. It is unfortunate for Krueger, who would have been hoping for redemption following a difficult outing in the 2019 final caused by an asthma attack. Kealia Watt was injured in the first half of the semifinal game in Portland and is not back in time.

However, along with Mal Pugh, Kayla Sharples returns to the team following her COVID protocol-related absence. Though she is not expected to start, she provides valuable depth for the Red Stars in the back line.

The Spirit will be missing Averie Collins (ACL), Bayley Feist (ACL), Jordan DiBiasi (hip), and Tori Huster (Achilles).

ISI Photos