The Chicago Red Stars advanced to the NWSL Playoff Semifinals for the sixth consecutive season with a 1-0 win over Gotham FC on a beautiful afternoon in Bridgeview. Mallory Pugh’s 61st minute goal not only stuck a dagger in Gotham’s championship hopes but put an end to the storied career of soccer legend Carli Lloyd.
Going into the game, Chicago was facing a team that hadn’t lost since August and went up against one of the top players in the league in Midge Purce. The home team’s defense was solid, and the offensive threats of Purce and Lloyd were stifled for 90 minutes as Gotham hardly threatened the goal.
The game was, in fact, the defensive battle that it was expected to be. “It certainly wasn’t the most exciting game,” said Red Stars head coach Rory Dames, “but our expectation was to win the game, and we won the game.”
The Red Stars controlled the first 15 minutes, but when Gotham flipped Midge Purce over to the left the tide shifted. The adjustment led to a number of chances being created for the visitors. The best chance came in the 11th minute when Ifeoma Onumonu sent Sarah Gorden to the floor inside the penalty box, but the shot was straight at the goalkeeper.
Inexplicably, Purce went back to the right, and accordingly, the momentum shifted back to the Red Stars. There were a few opportunities created from set-pieces, but the Red Stars couldn’t find a breakthrough. Rachel Hill had multiple chances to convert from crosses, but she couldn’t get on the end of any of them.
Despite some late momentum, the Red Stars went into halftime dissatisfied. “In the first half, we weren’t patient enough on the ball, we were all over the place,” said Sarah Gorden. “In the second half we went out there and we wanted to connect passes and slow the game down.”
Mal Pugh, who is up for league MVP, made things happen in the 55th minute, collecting the ball inside her own half before taking on the entire Gotham team. She sent numerous players to the ground and linked up with Kealia Watt to create an opportunity in the final third. That final chance never really came though as supporting options didn’t arrive in time, and the attack fizzled out.
A great transition moment six minutes later would prove to be decisive. Sarah Woldmoe, returning from a COVID protocol-related absence, bullied the defender off of the ball, and laid the ball off for Pugh, who struck the ball elegantly into the far post.
“In the playoffs, it’s a little bit of quality or something special that wins these games… Sarah made a great read on the ball, and Mal’s finish was special,” said Dames.
As the game entered the final quarter of an hour, the well-organized Chicago backline continued to limit the attacking threats from Gotham. Carli Lloyd had a few chances late on to find an equalizer, but she grasped at them, and could not score. The Red Stars held on for a 1-0 win in from of the crowd of 7,027 people.
“As the clock was running down, I kept looking up at the clock…” said an emotional Carli Lloyd post-game. “Time was essentially… running out. It’s really sunk in now.” She broke down in tears mid-sentence; her legendary 22-year career had come to an end.
For Chicago, the focus now shifts to Portland. The Red Stars have only won in Portland once before… and that was eight years ago, in the NWSL’s inaugural season. Despite that, they ended their nearly decade-long regular season winless streak against the Thorns earlier this year and will be hoping to ride that momentum into next Sunday at 4:30.