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Halfway Home: Taking Stock of the Chicago Red Stars at the Mid-Way Mark

Sunday’s game vs Orlando begins the second half of the Red Stars season. In a playoff position but with a negative goal differential, where do things stand?

Houston Dash v Chicago Red Stars Photo by Daniel Bartel/ISI Photos/Getty Images

Sunday’s match vs the Orlando Pride will kick off the second half of the season for the Chicago Red Stars; 12 matches down, 12 to go. Fittingly, next week will also see the opening of the second transfer window of the season which runs from August 3rd to September 2nd. Thus, it felt like the perfect time to take stock of the Red Stars at the halfway mark: what’s working, what isn’t, have the team’s potential transfer needs changed, and how difficult the rest of the road might be.

Cool Like Cassie

When you lose a two-time World Cup-winning goalkeeper for a couple of months, that would ordinally set off serious alarm bells. However, Cassie Miller hasn’t looked at all out of place as the Red Stars temporary number one. She’s allowed just 4 goals in 4 starts, including three consecutive wins following the USWNT players’ departures, from 12 shots on target. Whether in Chicago (a double-expansion draft this offseason causes plenty of uncertainty) or elsewhere, the early evidence strongly suggests that Miller has a future as an NWSL goalkeeper.

What To Do On Defense?

No team has allowed more goals than the Red Stars this season. The silver lining, of course, is that 5 of the 17 goals they’ve conceded came in one game. In the eleven games since the battering by Portland, that works out to 1 goal per game which would be good enough for tied for fourth over the course of the season.

Despite looking decent on paper, there’s been no shortage of concerning moments. The first goal last week against Gotham is a perfect example, as Kayla Sharples was left to mark two Gotham players in the center of the box as the defensive structure broke down following a set piece.

Set piece defending has been a particular struggle this season, a combination of poor marking and the reality that the Red Stars simply don’t have any players besides Sharples who are particularly tall or strong in the air.

Sarah Gorden is the only Red Star to play every minute so far this season. I maintain that she is best as a fullback pushing up to help the attack and also in a position to utilize her 1-v-1 defending skills to shut down the more dangerous opposition winger. At the moment, though, she is the best suited of the options available to partner Sharples.

On that note, teams have quickly realized what the Red Stars are doing at fullback: Arin Wright plays on the most dangerous side (for example, on the Red Stars left vs Midge Purce against Gotham) and rookie Tatum Milazzo on the other. Last week, OL Reign created several good chances by having Tziarra King run at Milazzo along with various OL Reign players helping overload that side and leaving Eugenie Le Sommer to operate alone against Wright on the opposite side.

Bianca St. Georges isn’t yet 90-minutes fit, according to Red Stars coach Rory Dames, and picked up her second red card in just three appearances. The second, in the 4th minute of stoppage time at the end of Sunday’s game, was a straight red and thus rules her out for three matches.

Meanwhile, Zoe Morse is still yet to see the field as the Red Stars only real cover at center-back.

Milazzo is a player who Dames knows well and trusts, having coached her in her youth career. We’ve seen before that such players will be given a longer leash, so don’t expect any changes soon.

The question becomes what happens when the USWNT players return? Tierna Davidson and Casey Krueger will almost certainly be immediately restored to the starting lineup in place of two out of Milazzo, Sharples and Wright. But what about Julie Ertz? Before the season, Dames insisted she would play in midfield this season and she started there against Portland before suffering the knee injury that kept her out until the Olympics. With no USWNT matches of any note for the foreseeable future following the Olympics, there’s no reason not to play her in the greater position of need for the club. If the Red Stars want to remain in the top-half of the table, a return to the formidable Naeher, Krueger, Ertz, Davidson, Gorden back five is the logical path given the midfield options at Dames’ disposal.

Colaprico vs Woldmoe

With the exception of the game vs North Carolina where the Red Stars deployed a 3-4-3, the midfield has consistently been a three-player operation with Vanessa DiBernardo and Morgan Gautrat’s names written in pen. The variable is the selection of Danielle Colaprico or Sarah Woldmoe. Following the victory over OL Reign, Dames said that Woldmoe makes the team more defensively solid, while Colaprico’s ability to play as a solo number six allows both Gautrat and the team’s fullbacks to push higher up the pitch and make the team both more dangerous on the attack and better positioned to press.

The difference in how the team does on the scoreboard, however, is marginal. On the year, the Red Stars are -0.37 goals per 90 minutes when Woldmoe is on the field and -0.42 when Colaprico is playing (including all 5 Portland goals). Given this, the improvements to the offense Colaprico provides and the way she frees Gautrat to be more aggressive would appear to be the clear choice for a team desperately in need of more goals.

It is, of course, not quite that simple. Woldmoe has a higher floor but lower ceiling. She’s a dependable player who will be a solid 7/10 every game. She’s also an asset in helping defend set pieces as one of the taller players on the team.

Colaprico can cover an insane amount of ground and put out fires in addition to the offensive boosts, but she’s occasionally rash in her decision making (see the Louisville game).

Despite a strong return to the lineup vs OL Reign, Colaprico was again rotated in favor of Woldmoe against Gotham. The Red Stars managed just three shots on goal (one of which was Doniak’s strike in the 6th minute of added time), 36 percent possession, and 63% pass accuracy on just 285 passes.

Much like the defense, the Red Stars might be better off just going back to what made them one of the best teams in the NWSL over the last five seasons.

All Hail Own Goal

I enjoy the Red Stars Own Goal meme as much as anyone, but the reality is this team just doesn’t score goals. Their xG of 1.31 per game according to FootyStats is second only to Portland but they’ve scored just 12 in 12. Their underperformance is even worse than it initially appears, with five own goals meaning they’re averaging just 0.58 goals per game. That’s legendarily bad finishing for such chance creation.

Oddly enough, Makenzy Doniak’s 2 goals in just 340 minutes make her far and away the team’s most prolific scorer with Mallory Pugh the only other player to score twice. The national team players may have left the Red Stars thin at the back, but it’s up front where the issues continue to persist. Much like they’ve recognized the weak point in the Red Stars defense, opponents are well aware that Pugh possesses most of the Red Stars attacking threat as evidenced by the amount of space Rachel Hill is often given to operate in on the right wing.

The Red Stars failed to sign a striker in the first transfer window of the season. If they want to be in the conversation of title contenders, they can’t afford to miss again.

Looking Up and Moving Forward

The Red Stars outlook was incredibly bleak a few weeks ago. The game vs Louisville was a complete disaster: bad defending, a bad red card, borderline apathy. Dames and Gautrat spent over 20 minutes talking in the pouring rain afterword as Alyssa Naeher sat on the bench and stared out at the drenched field. The USWNT players left the next day.

Then, from nowhere, the Red Stars won their next three games. The team seems happier, despite everything not being perfect. Colaprico’s emphasis on the word ‘captain’ in praising DiBernardo’s 10,000 minute milestone was hard to miss. The return of the Olympians (perhaps sooner rather than later, given the performances we’ve seen from the USWNT) will undoubtedly boost the Red Stars quality and solidity at the back. Hopefully, the Red Stars left whatever the early season issues were on that wet field at the end of June.

At the start of the season, I predicted that the Red Stars would reach the semifinals of the NWSL Playoffs. If they’re to do so, the overall strategy must be to put the team first. Dames should play his players in the positions that best serve the team, the attacking players must raise their games, the club must invest, and the players must work past whatever weighed them down earlier this season.

Or, of course, Own Goal could go out and win the golden boot. Either way.