So the Red Stars are down by three at halftime of the NWSL championship. They gave up a goal in the first five minutes of the game. They’re getting beat all over the field and they keep looking to Sam Kerr to bail them out, but she’s only one person and the support underneath her is faltering. Everyone looks desperate, searching for a way out, something to yank back some kind of control. What do you say at halftime? What can you possibly say to get everyone to believe that they can still win? Do you even acknowledge the reality of the situation, which is that the Courage look like a machine that eats other teams for brunch, or is the only way you can get everyone to keep moving forward to tell them that nothing is lost yet? It’s a cruelty of sport, sometimes, that an outcome can be obvious, but the players still have to finish out the game.
Former Boston Breakers head coach Lisa Cole told me earlier this year that you can know the odds that you’re going to lose to a bigger, faster, opponent, but you have to play the game to know for sure. That’s what Rory Dames told his team too as they retreated from the field with the spectre of Crystal Dunn’s stoppage-time goal still lingering. “The biggest thing that we told them,” he said afterwards, “Is keep your heads up. It’s a 90-minute game. Play through a 90-minute game.”
But other than that, no, Rory Dames didn’t have much to say to his team after the first forty-five minutes. There was the issue of a quick, frustrated exchange between Sam Kerr and Savannah McCaskill near the end of the half, but Dames said that by the time he got into the locker room the two of them were already at the tactical board, going over the issue from the field. It could have been that Kerr wanted better service; it could have been that she wanted McCaskill to step up and take more space with the ball instead of just looking to Kerr. Whatever it was, they were already past it and had moved on to problem-solving.
“We just kind of looked at each other and said we can’t feel sorry four ourselves. We did it to ourselves,” McCaskill said in the mixed zone after the game. “We didn’t really perform the way that we wanted to. So going into the second half the group just needed to play like ourselves and try to find a way back into the game.”
Danny Colaprico said they were still planning a comeback after that third goal. “Yeah we’re three down, but we all looked at each other and we were like, it’s just three goals away. If we score a goal in every fifteen minutes of this half we can come back.”
Does it sound a little absurd? Maybe, like fans who can see the writing on the wall but don’t want to lose hope - well, we only need to score three goals to win. No, four. You never know! But that’s what the Red Stars needed to keep playing for 45 minutes. And that’s the joy and terror of sports too - you really don’t know. One through ball, one touch, one good bounce. Maybe they score a couple of quick back-to-back goals while the Courage are stunned. Maybe they can force it to penalties. Maybe they can at least salvage something from this game, even if they’re going to lose in the end. Just score a goal every 15 minutes - then as the clock counts down, a goal every 10 minutes. Okay, a goal every 5 minutes, and we could still be in this.
But even if they didn’t know how they were going to dig their way out, Colaprico knew at least one thing. “What’s great about this team is that we stuck together the whole game,” she said.
Casey Short said that there weren’t a lot of words in the locker room. There wasn’t a ton that needed to be said; everyone knew the score, and they knew they were out one of their best defenders, and that Short herself had just had an asthma attack from the pre-game fireworks and the humidity, and that the weather wasn’t what they were used to. “Then Julie kind of got us going saying hey, it sucks, this is not the position we want to be in, but we put ourselves here and it’s time to play for our pride and get going. We’re still in this. We can do this,” she said.
And to be fair, Chicago did start the second half with some spring in their step. They had some close calls, and a disallowed goal that would have been an absolute banger had it counted. Maybe they could have gotten those three goals. But they didn’t. And it was clear in the mixed zone that despite the complications slowly accumulating against them, they only blamed themselves.
The Red Stars were late coming out of their locker room for the mixed zone. They were still tender from the loss; Short’s voice grew teary as she spoke, and several players simply slipped past the media, declining requests to speak. Who could blame them? They had just lost, and lost badly. At least in a close game, you can hold on to your performance. In a game like this, there’s just the need for some time, and then when the distance is great enough, reviewing the footage in the hopes you never go through it again.
Players retire or get traded, teams break up and people move on. Colaprico said they had a sense this would probably be the last time the group as they knew it would be together, particularly with an expansion draft on the horizon, and so they tried to at least play for each other.
“It just wasn’t our best performance,” said Nikki Stanton. She was clear-eyed but grave, and when it was clear no one really had the heart to question her further about the night, she slowly trudged away from the mixed zone to join her teammates.