When a soccer team is struggling, the immediate reaction is often to do whatever is necessary to stop conceding goals and then worry about the rest later. Without a win in three games and following back-to-back losses, the mentality of the Chicago Red Stars against the Washington Spirit on Saturday night was clearly to defend and counter when possible.
Despite the departures of Alyssa Naeher and Tierna Davidson for the Olympics, the Red Stars gave perhaps their best defensive performance of 2021 while doing enough on offense to get back into the win column.
“If you ask any of us it was a must-win game,” said defender Kayla Sharples, who caused the game’s only goal with a header that the Spirit’s Julia Roddar deflected into her own net. “We fought for each other every second of the game, and you really saw that through our blocked shots, our tackles, constantly running after the ball even if it wasn’t a perfect pass.”
It was fitting that Sharples, who will be asked to anchor the Red Stars defense in the absences of Davidson, Julie Ertz and Casey Krueger in the coming weeks, was the one to make the difference on the goal, which she felt was a long time coming.
“I consider myself a physical player and a good aerial challenger,” Sharples said, noting the team worked specifically on set pieces extensively in training leading up to the game. “I had a fantastic service from Mal [Pugh] and then finished it, hopefully we can continue to do that.”
“She’s been getting on the end of a few, she had to put one away at some point,” said goalkeeper Cassie Miller with a laugh.
Miller, who played two games in Naeher’s national team absence at the Challenge Cup this spring, made an outstanding stop to deny Trinity Rodman and earn a clean sheet in her audition to be the temporary number-one in net for Chicago. She was quick to credit her teammates, including “even the forwards defending” which was emblematic of the total team effort on display.
“I don’t think the group’s gotten the results they deserved based on some of the games, so it was nice to see them get one they had to work a bit differently for,” coach Rory Dames said of the team’s performance.
Saturday kicked off what Dames has referred to as the ‘second season,’ the period when players leave for an international tournament. Sharples and Miller could be central figures of the next six or seven weeks filling the shoes of World Cup winners. Dames didn’t shy away from calling it as a unique opportunity for such players given the importance of every game to the final season standings.
“We definitely challenge the group on what they can get done over the next five or six games when the other players are gone,” Dames said.
For the Red Stars, the focus now is for Saturday to be a building block back to their best, rather than a blip among disappointing results. With a nine game break until their next game, there’s plenty of time both to recharge and continue to develop as the second season team.
“Every single day we’re gaining a little more confidence and having more familiarity and confidence within the team,” said Sharples. “If we really buy into our team values: resiliency, respect, trusting each other having each other’s backs, I think that we can win during this period of time when our Olympic players are gone.”