The Chicago Red Stars completed an exhausting week with four points from three games in eight days. Following a home draw with Gotham FC and an away victory in Kansas City, the Red Stars were hit with a late gut punch in Houston on Saturday night when Kristie Mewis scored in the 83rd minute to seize the three points.
Mallory Pugh once again occupied a starring role for the Red Stars, scoring in the 4th minute to give the Red Stars the early lead with her first NWSL regular season goal for the club.
“It was a bit of individual brilliance by you,” said defender and teammate Tierna Davidson when Pugh said she was “so tired” after completing another 90 minutes that she couldn’t remember what happened.
“Once you get in those spaces you’re not really thinking and it’s just the repetition,” Pugh said.
The goal saw her turn inside the Houston penalty area just a few feet from the end line and whip a low, right-footed strike into the far, bottom corner past Jane Campbell in the Houston goal.
“I think Mal gets better each game that she plays,” said Red Stars coach Rory Dames. “The more minutes she gets, the more fitness she gets, the more back into her game she gets, the better she’s gonna keep getting.”
But, of course, it wasn’t enough to beat the Dash. The Red Stars’ offense, after scoring just three goals in four Challenge Cup games, hasn’t picked up with only three goals in their opening four regular season outings.
“In this league, in close games and especially on the road you have to take those chances and we didn’t,” said Dames, whose team led 14 to 8 in shots and now sits in 9th place in the NWSL.
However, while offense writes the headlines, the two goals allowed on Saturday plus the five in the opener vs Portland mean the Red Stars have conceded the most goals in the league. They played with the same back-four for the third game in a row, providing predictability and, they hope, stability in the wake of Julie Ertz’s injury.
“We’re definitely getting more and more comfortable with each other’s tendencies,” Davidson said of her, Sarah Gorden, Casey Krueger and Kayla Sharples. “We still have a long way to go, but it’s looking up right now.”
While it was not specifically asked during the press conference, Dames must have heard about or seen the chatter on Twitter about the lack of substitutions by the Red Stars, who made all four of their changes in the game in the 84th minute or later. Makenzy Doniak and Arin Wright replaced Kealia Watt and Rachel Hill immediately after the second Dash goal, Sarah Luebbert made her season debut in place of Sarah Woldmoe three minutes later, and Katie Johnson replaced Danielle Colaprico in stoppage time.
“You sub when you want to change something in the game,” said Dames in defense of his decisions. “We looked like we were gonna be the team that was going to score in the second half. We were the team that was getting the chances. We were the team that was on the front foot. If you sub, you also destroy the flow that you’ve created within the group.”
Dames and the Red Stars will have much more than substitution patterns to ponder this week as they return to Chicago in preparation for the resurgent North Carolina Courage on Saturday.
There’s been no shortage of talk about the attack and defense both needing more familiarity, and the Red Stars will welcome the two-week break that follows the North Carolina match.
But after that, the schedule deals out another three-game week. In what’s setting up to be potentially the most competitive NWSL season yet, that familiarity will need to come fast if they want to be familiar with the top of the table.