For Chicago Red Stars fans, the home stretch of the 2019 NWSL season feels different.
In seasons past, this is typically when the Red Stars go on a hot streak. In 2018, after losing to the North Carolina Courage on July 4th, Chicago went on a seven game unbeaten streak to lock down a playoff spot. The 2017 campaign ended similarly, with the Red Stars earning three wins and one draw from their last five regular season games.
Going purely by recent histories, this is usually when Chicago gets hot. But they’re currently on a three game losing streak, with two of those defeats coming from the Orlando Pride and Sky Blue FC, who have the worst records in the league
If you’re a neutral, this makes for an exciting and unpredictable playoff race. If you’re a Red Stars fan, this is hell.
Here are a few reasons why the Red Stars may be struggling.
This is the most likely, and most obvious, explanation. The Red Stars had four of their players named to the USWNT’s World Cup roster, with Julie Ertz in particular playing a pivotal role in securing the Americans’ fourth championship. Sam Kerr, bearing a chip on her shoulder after Australia’s early exit from the tournament, returned to her club team straightaway and has been named to the Starting XI in every game since then. Their star players are all worn out.
For that matter, so are Chicago’s squad players. Those who didn’t go to the World Cup were asked to carry the team for large parts of the summer. Not only are they physically tired, but poor results during that stretch of the season has surely had an impact on their mentality.
With fatigue comes injuries. Vanessa DiBernardo has been playing hurt for long stretches of this season. Danielle Colaprico has been forced into a bench role in recent games due to lingering injuries. Other players have either had to take a couple games off this season to heal, or else push through it and try to make a positive impact while only being able to play at 70-80%.
The Red Stars don’t have it nearly as bad as other teams do right now. (We’re so sorry, Reign FC.) But they do have a fatigue problem, and it’s serious enough that it could cost them a playoff spot.
Their Central Defense Remains A Problem
Their problems in defense boil down to three issues.
First, they haven’t been able to stick with a consistent backline for very long. Mostly that’s been unavoidable; between the World Cup and injuries, Dames has had to make do with who he has available on any given week.
Second, they have a natural central defender shortage. It hasn’t been uncommon this season to see a centerback slot occupied by either a wide defender, such as Casey Short, or a Julie Ertz, who is still ostensibly a holding midfielder.
And third, the Red Stars are having to rely too much on Tierna Davidson. The 20-year-old rookie, who earned a spot in the USWNT’s World Cup roster, will undoubtedly be a top tier defender in the league and a real franchise player for the Red Stars. Someday. Right now, she’s still 20 years old and still learning. The huge weight of responsibility being foisted on her isn’t doing her, or the team, any favors.
Regardless of how this season goes, the best thing the Red Stars can do for the medium is sign an experienced centerback this coming offseason. Not only will it shore up the team’s most glaring weakness, but having someone who can mentor Davidson will pay huge dividends down the road.
The fatigue, the poor run of results, the performances against ostensibly weaker teams— all this adds up to a fraught mood in the locker room.
Head coach Rory Dames alluded to this problem last month following the Red Stars’ home loss to Orlando. Per Dan Santaromita’s report at Pro Soccer USA, Dames said “[we] just didn’t really have any edge to us the last two games. We have a lot of people with personalities on our team, but there wasn’t a lot of personality on the field tonight.”
One of the Red Stars’ greatest strengths in recent years was their group mentality and morale, bolstered last season with the addition of a rock star personality in Sam Kerr. If Chicago’s team attitude is indeed wavering, as Dames appeared to hint at, they could indeed be in serious trouble.
The Red Stars have five games remaining in the 2019 regular season, starting with this Sunday’s clash at home against Houston. Another loss, coupled with a Reign FC win over Orlando this weekend, could potentially drop them below the red line with time running out in the campaign. Their final two games of the season are against teams who are also in the playoff race, Washington and Utah (both at home). Either or both of those fixtures could be do-or-die games for Chicago.
This is Put Up Or Shut Up Time for the Red Stars. These next few games will define their season. As Claire Watkins wrote in her recap of the loss against Orlando: “they either will or they won’t.”