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In Making The NWSL Championship Final, The Chicago Red Stars Project Is Finally Paying Off

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There’s no magic, no secret ingredient to Chicago’s success. They just put in the work.

During the last ten minutes of the Chicago Red Stars’ 1-0 win over the Portland Thorns, the same thought kept running over and over in my head.

“This is the best team in the league.”

Objectively, that’s not quite accurate. Chicago are the #2 seed in the 2019 NWSL Playoffs. Last weekend’s win over Portland marked their first postseason win in the NWSL era, following four consecutive one-and-done playoff campaigns. There was a point this season when it looked like the Red Stars might not make the playoffs at all. Their opponents in this weekend’s final, the North Carolina Courage, are clearly the better team on paper.

But if you were in Bridgeview, Illinois, last weekend and saw the Red Stars shut down Portland so comprehensively, it would be easy to think they were the best team in the league.

The fact that they looked so good, and that they’ve been given halfway decent odds to take down the best women’s team in North America on Sunday, didn’t happen by accident. It’s the culmination of a long-term project entering its eighth year, stretching back to the founding of the National Women’s Soccer League. The winning formula is simple enough— team cohesion, grinding out results any way they can, and a commitment to putting in the work required.

The team cohesion variable is evident to anyone who talks to the players. Earlier this week, we featured an interview with Yuki Nagasato conducted by Sandra Herrera. The former Japan international, who’s on the shortlist of candidates for the 2019 NWSL MVP award, told Sandra that the success she enjoyed this season would not have been possible without her teammates.

“[...] when I made that list, I couldn’t make it by myself. The team has grown a lot, more than last season, and we clearly understand each other so well. Much better than last year.”

Defender Casey Short shared similar sentiments earlier this month in response to being named to the Team Of The Month.

“[...] 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.”

Over at Hot Time In Old Town, defender Sarah Gorden told Sandra the same thing— and that the sense of team cohesion, of fighting for each other every game, is what helped them beat Portland.

“[...] the game against Portland? That was who we were. Anytime Tobin [Heath] had the ball there was two of us there. Anytime Horan had the ball, someone’s stepping to her and there’s someone behind to cover. So, we really got back to our Chicago roots of playing together.”

That, more than anything else, has been the defining characteristic of Chicago’s run at the NWSL Championship. Everyone connected to the organization— from the players and technical staff, to the sales and marketing teams, to the supporters, and even local media figures like Sandra— have pulled together to make this opportunity happen. It was that sense of togetherness that helped the team turn games where they should’ve dropped points into victories, as with their win over Orlando last month. Being able to grind out points, to get results where they might not have any business doing so, was only possible because everyone pulled together and put in the work.

And now they’re here. North Carolina are undoubtedly the favorites to win back-to-back championships. But only a fool, or a hardcore Courage stan, would think it’s a foregone conclusion. The Red Stars have been working toward this day since 2011, and they’re ready for it. They’re not counting on luck. They’re not even counting on Sam Kerr working some magic. (Although, to be clear, that’s definitely still on the table.) If the Red Stars do emerge as 2019 Champions, it will be because they’ve put in the work to make it happen.