Led Red Stars to best ever finish in club’s professional history

By Gunnar Berndt

Chicago, Ill. – Fresh off a defeat to FC Kansas City that brought an end to the Chicago Red Stars’ 2015 playoff run, Head Coach Rory Dames recently took the time to discuss one of the most bizarre games in club history, his assessment of the campaign as a whole, and what the future might hold for his young squad.

While Chicago outshot the defending National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) champs 18-11 this past Sunday, strikes by Amy Rodriguez on either side of an Erika Tymrak tally saw the opposition storm out to a 3-0 halftime lead and the Red Stars unable to bounce back despite a spirited effort after the break. In the end, FCKC rode out the victory courtesy of disciplined team defending aided by the savvy of eight players with U.S. Women’s National Team experience.

“We did what we wanted to do and had success with our game plan,” analyzed Dames. “The goals that we gave up were very uncharacteristic of us. That said, you also have to give Kansas City credit because they did a good job of sitting back a little bit and capitalizing on the transition. Most of their players have international caps for a reason. They’re all winners who know how to pounce on an opportunity.”

Chicago came out guns blazing in the match and had several excellent looks in the opening stages, Stars and Stripes ace Christen Press coming closest with two efforts off the crossbar. However, FCKC took the lead on a freak goal at the other end, U.S. attacker Lauren Holiday stripping goalkeeper Michele Dalton of the ball for a simple Rodriguez pass into the open net.

“If either of Christen’s shots goes in, that changes the complexion of the game,” offered Dames. “In my opinion, our first half was some of the best soccer we’ve played all year – especially in the attacking third. It just lacked a bit of quality in either the final pass or the finish. Meanwhile, Kansas City was lethal. We had several quality looks, but they scored on every single one of theirs.”

The lop-sided defeat in the do-or-die playoff semifinal was unusual in several different ways. Not only had Dames’ squad had the upper hand against the Blues over the course of the regular season, recording a 2-1 away win and a 2-2 draw at home, it also had suffered just three defeats in its 20 total games and had not lost by more than a goal in all but one.

Said the Red Stars Head Coach, “Sunday’s game was one of those strange ones that happen once in a while. Unfortunately it came at the worst possible moment in our campaign. It don’t think the game was too big for us. I don’t think we were nervous. We came out in the first ten minutes and had them pinned into their own half, and then their goal against the run of play took the air out of it a bit. We had a decent response, but the second goal really made it difficult for us, let alone the third.

“I thought the group was good in the second half. We chased and pushed numbers high to try and get one back. That allowed them to get in on the counter a few times, but Michele (Dalton) made some very good saves. In the end, we’re young and we’ll learn from the game. It can only help the team in the future.”

Dames, who has now been at the helm with the Red Stars for five years, went on to provide a positive assessment of his side’s 2015 season. Featuring a number of rookies and up-and-comers in prominent roles, Chicago reached the postseason of a professional league for the very time in its existence.

“Kicking down the door of finally getting to the playoffs was big for this club after four combined seasons in (Women’s Professional Soccer) and the NWSL,” said the Illinois native. “The three-year plan we put together in early 2013 played out the way we thought it would. If anything, we probably overachieved a bit this year. The goal was to get to the knockout stage with this young group to get a feel for it. The fact we were able to finish second in the table and host a playoff game was an added bonus.”

Among the first-year pros who made a crucial impact in 2015 were newly crowned NWSL Rookie of the Year Danielle Colaprico, agile left back Arin Gilliland and forward Sofia Huerta, who received the first ever Player of the Month award in Red Stars history for her multi-game scoring streak in May. Add to that two FIFA Women’s World Cup champs in their early to mid-twenties, center back sensation Julie Johnston and lethal striker Christen Press, and Chicago fans have every reason to look toward 2016 with optimism. However, Head Coach Dames also stressed the need for continued individual improvement.

“We started only two players against FCKC that were over 26,” he said. “So I expect next season to be another year of growth for our girls. If you watch the teams in the playoffs, there are some players – like Rodriguez, Holiday, Fishlock, Rapinoe or Little – who are at a slightly different level. We have a couple of players like that, one of them being Christen (Press). Several others need to raise their game to that level. The good news is that a lot of them are very young and have every chance to do so.”

In addition to World Cup winners Johnston, Press, Lori Chalupny and now retired Shannon Boxx, Chicago featured four more internationals who competed in Canada. After the team had successfully defended first place in the standings throughout the absence of its established stars, their return in July inevitably caused a distraction, resulting in a stretch of disappointing results. That figures heavily into Head Coach Dames’ thoughts on what a future with his current club might look like.

“It’s definitely positive that the majority of the players who helped us be successful this year will be back in 2016,” he said, “but I don’t think everyone understands the grind of the league and what it takes to have a good year, especially with many of your best players gone for a while. I’m not sure that I would want another disjointed campaign like that.

“Last year, we were near the top of the table, but then we had a big influx of players and that disrupted our rhythm. The same happened this year when the World Cup was over. Next year, we’ll likely be in a similar situation with the Olympics. Because of that, it may be worth considering not having quite as many internationals and instead having the group consistently together.”

While the experience of newly retired U.S. legend Boxx and Canada goalkeeping giant Karina LeBlanc will certainly be missed, one can’t help but be encouraged by the fact no fewer than 16 players on the Red Stars roster that finished out the 2015 season are under the age of 27. It’s the main reason Dames believes the sky is the limit for his side, which frequently featured a number of first-year and second-year players in the starting lineup this year – among them defender Gilliland, holding midfielder Colaprico, team assists leader Vanessa DiBernardo, forward Huerta and World Cup standout Johnston.

“The next step in our evolution would be to win a championship,” said the man in charge of Chicago. “That said, I’d have to figure out which players I would bring back, where I would need to add something and how to do that – through the draft, via trade or in some other way. But we won’t think about that until I talk to (General Manager) Alyse (LaHue) and (team owner) Arnim (Whisler) about how they envision things going forward. I do believe we have a great foundation in place now and a great core group of players who will be around for a while to come. The future for the Red Stars is really bright.”

The Chicago Red Stars up-and-comers and the club’s established internationals will be battling side by side for NWSL glory throughout the 2016 campaign. Get your season tickets today by clicking here or by calling 773-698-6001.

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