As the Chicago Red Stars get themselves prepared to host their first semifinal in five years, they will be doing so with long time defender and hometown favorite Casey Short in the mix.
The regular season came to a close for NWSL last weekend, wrapping up a hectic World Cup year. For the league, it included a number of teams jockeying for playoff position, names familiar and new, and the everlasting question of possible expansion.
For Short, it included the highest of highs and the lowest of lows: her omission from the 2019 World Cup roster. Something that initially felt a bit like a rejection.
“I was kind of in this numbness during that time and not sure of what I wanted to do,” said Short after training last week. “So, just climbing out of that was definitely the hardest.”
Six months ago, at the start of the 2019 NWSL season, the U.S. national team World Cup roster had not yet been set. Short had been a part of numerous camps with the senior national team since her return to NWSL back in 2016 - a breakthrough year for several Red Stars - but it was the Naperville native whose name was consistent alongside fellow Red Stars staples Alyssa Naeher and Julie Ertz.
“I didn’t know exactly what that picture would look like for me individually. I knew that I was one of those people on the fence, but I still believed that there was still a chance for me to make that [World Cup] team,” said Short.
“You know, the last two-and-a-half years, I was with the team. Then the tough news came around, and it hit me hard. It was probably one of the toughest times of my life,” she continued. “Because it’s something I dreamed of for so long, and I had been through that whole journey with the team, but I dealt with it.”
The Red Stars have consistently found themselves in the conversation as a top-tier team within the league, even in a World Cup year that forced everyone to make adjustments. For Chicago that meant returning much of their roster and welcoming new editions via trade and during the NWSL draft. After the World Cup roster news, the Red Stars knew they could include Short moving forward, and Short credits her support system with helping her move forward too this year, which included her parents, friends, family, and her entire club.
She specifically cites the coaching staff and her head coach Rory Dames for helping her try to see the opportunity in front of her, instead of the negative that could’ve come with such a rejection.
“[Rory] had a really tough convo with me. A really honest conversation, and it kind of opened my eyes.” Short said. “[He] helped me realize ‘okay this happened but it happened for a reason.’ I have more to give. There’s more to give to this team, and there’s more growing to do, and he really helped pull me out.”
“I realized, you know what? It’s not over, there’s so much more to this story. There’s so much more opportunity for me individually and on this team. And my focus changed. To winning a championship for this city, getting past that hump, and getting where I know this team deserves to be.”
For Rory Dames, watching a player like Short overcome her own personal challenges is nothing new.
“That’s all [she’s] done since she was 19 is overcome adversity,” said Dames. “I’ve watched Casey play since she was 9 years old, wearing a big bun up on top, and was the fastest kid up front that would run by everybody. It’s been fun to watch her journey.”
“I think the biggest thing with Casey is she’s had the biggest obstacles to overcome this year because the obstacles she’s had to overcome were out of her control,” added Dames. “The fact that she got called into some of the games for the [World Cup] victory tour is a bigger credit to how much she personally fought through it.”
It was her performances for club that saw her back in with the national team during their final stretch of victory tour games, a tour that concluded in her beloved hometown of Chicago, which was also the farewell match for national team coach Jill Ellis. It was a moment that truly helped bring closure for Short.
“I certainly didn’t expect that call, but to get [it], was a bit of a full circle moment for me,” said Short. “To play for [Ellis] one last time and get one more opportunity— it did mean a lot for me. I was able to have another conversation with her and just sort of close that chapter. And it all just happened to be in Chicago which is pretty darn cool too. So all those things made it quite a special day for me. It really is a dream.”
Short’s U.S. national teammates have commended her for her efforts throughout the season and pushing ahead for whatever the next opportunity may be. Crystal Dunn, who shares a similar national team story with Short, expressed the importance of putting in the work after going through such a tough moment in one’s career.
“She’s been a big part of this team. After getting left off, I know the feeling, it’s not easy,” said Dunn. “I think just her being consistent throughout the year has been really important for her and her career.”
Dunn elaborated, “if I learned anything from my journey, it’s that you can only do your very best every single time you step on the field, and I think she’s done that for herself. She’s been consistent throughout the whole season.”
Christen Press, a former Red Stars teammate, had definitive feelings on Short and her league performances to date. After facing her former club for the first time with the Utah Royals, she only had positive things to say about Short.
“Casey’s a fantastic player, it’s incredibly difficult to be one of the closest players to making a roster and then not,” said Press. “That type of resilience that Casey has shown - having a great season, not emotionally letting that affect her, continuing to grow - she has a really bright future.”
Press added, “Casey’s the best one-v-one defender in the world.”
Press is not alone in her views, with Short making history during this NWSL season as she was featured on every single Team of the Month, which is voted on by the NWSL Media Association. It’s an achievement that no other player has accomplished in league history.
Despite the accolades and attention, Short is adamant in her personal growth as the main positive to come out of this season for her. Finally taking that first step towards moving forward is what’s most rewarding for her, and any other accolade is simply a reflection of her teammates and the work they put in around her.
“The growth for sure, and everybody in my life just stepping up for me and showing up for me and helping me. I think those few things were huge. Because, yes, this one terrible thing happened, but so many great things came out of it and that was the coolest thing,” said Short.
“[Team’s of the Month] they’re definitely nice to hear, but all I care about are the girls and the coaching staff inside [that locker room] and what we do, and the result on the field. I mean it’s great to get those but it’s truly a result of all those people. I’m incredibly thankful, and it’s encouraging to see those things and it definitely gives me confidence but it’s just a reflection of my teammates.”
For a player like Short, her growth became a personal manifestation of highlight worthy defensive performances this year, winning over 50%of her duels, to go along with her 43 clearances and 26 interceptions, the most of any outside back in the league this year. While most outside backs are noted for their offensive capabilities, Short has remained steadfast in her defensive prowess while also being an offensive threat for her club team this year.
“Biggest goal of the year. 95th minute, down a player,” Dames reminded me after training. “You don’t normally count on your left back to win the game for you. You don’t normally count on your left back to sprint up 110 yards to get into the spot and then change the game for you.”
It’s those types of performances that the Red Stars will need, from Short and others, as they prepare to take on their semifinal against Portland Thorns FC, a team with which they are well aware they have a history, one that has left Chicago winless since 2013. The Red Stars have gone through some big changes over their seasons, and have yet to find the formula to get a win over Portland.
“I do think there is a different feeling this time,” said Short. “I think that comes with the fact that we’re going to host it. It’s going to bring some different energy and some confidence as well.
“I know every single person in there wants it. We really want it. And we’re going to fight for it. We’re going to fight for each other for it. I can promise you that.”