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Chicago Red Stars looking to develop stars of the future

You can’t replace Sam Kerr, but you can change your tactics and put together a much deeper roster.

Portland Thorns FC v Chicago Red Stars

The Chicago Red Stars no longer have Sam Kerr at striker. This preview of the current team won’t talk too much about that, but I felt like we should get it out of the way. Chicago lost the two-time MVP and three-time Golden Boot winner, and it didn’t replace her with another world class striker. Last year’s finalists are going to look like a much different team going forward.

“How many players are there that we could have brought in that are the same caliber?”, head coach Rory Dames says when asked about replacing Kerr, and he has a point. It’s something that will need to be done collectively, rather than by one player. And for that reason, Dames is going to need to switch up his strategy.

“The way we attack this year will be a little bit different,” he says. “We’ll look to get more players into the attack.”

That change looks likely to revolve around the group of new wide players that Chicago acquired in the offseason. Kealia Watt, Rachel Hill and Makenzy Doniak give Dames options out on the wings that he didn’t have before. Dames also says that strikers Savannah McCaskill and Katie Johnson have significantly improved their fitness during the offseason, and he expects them to up their production.

But the Red Stars are probably more focused on building a championship team for 2021 than they are on being as good as possible in the NWSL Challenge Cup. “I think we’re going to be more willing to play younger kids than some of these other teams,” Dames says.

The presence of veterans like Julie Ertz, Casey Short and Yuki Nagasato still gives the Red Stars a chance to make a run, though. It might be the most development-focused team in the tournament, but no one is counting it out.

Let’s watch a fun player’s highlights

Everyone who’s ever played with Nagasato cites her as one of their favorite teammates, and it’s easy to see why.

Who’s missing?

Alyssa Mautz sadly tore her ACL for the second time in two years this month, while Arin Wright is sitting out the tournament after having a child.

Projected lineup

When everyone’s fit, I think Dames is going to default to a 4-2-3-1 for the first time in years, though he wouldn’t reveal how he wanted to play and I am guessing to some degree.

Lineup questions

Tierna Davidson and Danielle Colaprico are coming back from injuries and won’t be available for the opening match, but they’re both on the roster and certainly preferred starters for the Red Stars. Dames might consider running a back three formation when Davidson is fit, but certainly won’t without her.

Without those two players, I’m not sure what Dames is going to do. My best guess is that Morgan Brian moves into a defensive midfield role, while Sarah Gorden moves inside to center back, but those certainly aren’t ideal roles for those players. We’ll get to see which of his large stable of youngsters Dames rates highest in early matches.

I think that the wide players and Johnson will all get plenty of opportunities, and there are not any locked in starters in those forward spots.

How do the Red Stars play?

Even though Chicago has retained its coach and most of its starters, I’m not sure how relevant last season’s stats are, given the departure of Kerr. Dames looks set to make significant changes to Chicago’s style without her.

“We’re going to be a little bit more methodical in our build,” Dames says. “We’ll have to be a bit more patient in possession. We’ll have to move the block higher up the field together, and in turn, get more people around the goal.”

And importantly, he looks likely to make a shift from a 4-4-2 diamond shape to one with a lot of width.

“To their credit they’ve made it work for them,” Sandra Herrera of Southside Trap says about the club’s most favored narrow formation. “But you could see in certain seasons the attempts to try and address the lack of width, in trying to make a move for players like Stephanie McCaffrey, or drafting a player like Michele Vasconcelos, or utilizing Sofia Huerta outside before realizing she was great in the 10.”

The Red Stars had a very high number of counter-attack shots in 2019, which I think will drop. It was the league’s most direct team and completed the lowest percentage of crosses, two things which I also expect to change. It was slightly below league average in passes per defensive action and the distance from goal it made defensive actions, and I expect the Red Stars to try to win the ball a bit higher up at the Challenge Cup.

Kealia Watt wants to revive her career

In 2016, Kealia Watt put together an MVP-caliber 11 goal campaign for the Houston Dash. She was expected to become a USWNT star, but she tore her ACL in 2017, and hasn’t quite been the same since. Her and the Dash mutually agreed it was time for her to move on this offseason, and she sounded extremely motivated to improve in an interview with Annie Costabile of the Chicago Sun-Times.

“I know I can be that good,” Watt told Costabile, referring to her 2016 campaign. “I know I can produce that much. I know I can be the leading scorer in the league, and that’s what I want to get back to.”

Dames says she’s looked great in training, and fans are hopeful she can turn in her best performances in 4 years at the Challenge Cup. And Red Stars fans have warmed up to her quickly.

“She’s had this really unique perspective in that she has zero appearances for Chicago, and yet somehow has constantly let people know in her media moments how truly Chicago she is ready to be,” Herrera says about Watt’s attitude.

We can only guess what was holding her back in Houston, but everyone around Watt seems convinced that she’ll return to form in a Red Stars shirt.

Michele Vasconcelos rules

I enjoyed watching Michele Vasconcelos before she got injured last season and thought she looked like a very good player. Here, watch her finish off the best team goal anyone scored all season.

But I didn’t realize how good she was before her injury. This is a tiny sample size, but Vasconcelos was absolutely bonkers in her short time on the field. She had more Expected Goals than any winger in the league, she was only taking quality shots, she was setting up her teammates, and she was the league’s most effective pressing winger too. If Vasconcelos did this over the course of an entire season, she would be starting for the USWNT with zero argument.

“That was the biggest loss we took, because she was the one other player we had who had the pace to run with Sam,” Dames says about Vasconcelos’ injury. “When she was available in the draft I traded up to get her because she had the player profile in an out-and-out winger that I look for.”

In a team that explicitly tries to play through its wingers, she might be even better.

What’s a successful tournament for the Red Stars?

I don’t think it’s about results. A successful tournament for Chicago is one where Dames feels like he’s helped young players get better and gained more information about his fringe players. This team is trying to figure out how to compete for a championship in 2021. To do that, it will need to figure out which depth players are ready for a big role, and which ones aren’t good enough.

Schedule

Red Stars vs. Spirit — Saturday, June 27

Thorns vs. Red Stars — Wednesday, July 1

Courage vs. Red Stars — Sunday, July 5

Red Stars vs. Royals - Monday, July 13