Chicago Red Stars head coach Rory Dames spoke to media on Monday afternoon ahead of the Red Stars’ third game of the 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup on Wednesday night against Kansas City at SeatGeek Stadium.
He offered his thoughts on a variety of topics ranging from injuries to an update on the club’s transfer activities.
Injuries and USWNT player availability
Dames confirmed that defender Bianca St. Georges and goalkeeper Emily Boyd will not participate in the Challenge Cup, and added that Boyd has not yet returned to full-contact training in her recovery from an ACL tear in 2020.
As for newly-acquired forward Mallory Pugh, who was an unused substitute against Portland, Dames said it will depend on the playing conditions for the game.
“Mallory’s cleared to play some but we certainly wouldn’t have played her on the snow in 30 degrees,” he said, alluding to the reason for the postponement of their third game from Tuesday to Wednesday.
On a positive front, he said that defender Kayla Sharples is cleared from COVID protocol and will be available on Wednesday night.
The highest profile returns will be the three players returning from United States Women’s National Team camp in Europe: goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher and defenders Tierna Davidson and Julie Ertz.
“Alyssa, Tierna and Julie will certainly play,” Dames said.
This will allow for him to rotate more of his defense, after Sarah Gorden and Casey Krueger started both games and Arin Wright also played significant minutes.
Davidson and Ertz will likely return to their positions as the Red Stars’ preferred center-back pairing when both are available. Dames said he feels that Davidson is fully healthy for the first time as a pro and is excited to see what she can do both for the Red Stars and USA in 2021.
“Tierna’s ability to set up play out of that spot, Tierna’s ability to hit a 50-yard diagonal ball to the weak side with her left foot…” really open up the Red Stars options in build up, Dames said, adding of Ertz that “Julie gets us organized so quickly that we can play higher [for] longer and we can also send our outside backs a little higher and [be] a little bit more fluid.”
While the USWNT players provide defensive reinforcement, Dames said he thinks it will be just as much a benefit to an attack that is yet to score in the Challenge Cup. After the shortened and intermittent schedule of 2020, he said the team is still learning how to play together and in a way that is unfamiliar even to established members of the squad.
“When you’re playing with a dynamic 9 up high basically by themselves, regardless if it’s Christen [Press] or Sam [Kerr], you want to play more in transition,” Dames said of the team’s tactics in years past. “You want to find them early, you want to release them early. When you’re playing with a more organized attack, you want to get more players higher…”
As a result, Dames is already trying different strategies and combinations. The Red Stars played a 4-3-3 against Houston with Katie Johnson as the central striker, but opted for a four-player midfield behind two forwards in the Portland game.
“You certainly want to win the Challenge Cup, but you also have to get some questions answered at the Challenge Cup,” Dames said.
The Challenge Cup, while an opportunity for a trophy, also serves as a preseason tournament. Dames is confident that once the entire squad has time together that the goals will come. However, he did admit to having concerns for where the goals will come from later this summer.
“I think the bigger question becomes ‘what does the group look like when the Olympics are here? And who goes and doesn’t go? And how do we score goals during that time frame?’…”
About the Olympics...
“I think we lose all five of them,” said Dames when asked who he believes will go to Tokyo with the USWNT.
The five of course include Naeher, Davidson and Ertz, as well as Krueger and Pugh. Krueger made a strong case for herself in recent camps and earned praise from coach Vlatko Andonovski. Particularly given the USWNT’s lack of fullback depth, she looks like a strong candidate for an alternate spot if not as a member of the 18-player squad. Pugh’s prospects, on the other hand, will depend on her fitness and form over the early months of the NWSL season.
Dames hinted earlier this offseason that the Red Stars would place greater importance on the international market this year than in the past. Resulting signings are yet to come to fruition, and with fans clamoring for a new striker the time frame to make an impact addition before the season begins is shrinking quickly. Despite the lack of recent news or rumors, Dames reassured that the club’s focus hasn’t changed.
“We’ve been chasing two internationals for a few months that are still currently in their seasons,” he said. “I think if we got one of them we’d be happy, I do think we’ll get the one but I won’t go into it a whole lot more than that.”
Few international signings have been made for this season across the NWSL, a reality Dames blamed on a combination of COVID and the Olympics.
“If you’re in an Olympic year and somebody can’t come until June and then [they go to] the Olympics, is it really worth bringing them in? Because they’re not cheap. So are you better off waiting until next year or maybe trying to sign them post-Olympics?”
Dames doesn’t know the answers yet, but for now Red Stars fans will have to trust that the coach is doing everything in his power to address the team’s weaknesses and prepare the squad not only for the coming Challenge Cup games, but the beginning of the regular season in just 27 days.