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Looks to defend first place in NWSL standings on Saturday

By Gunnar Berndt

Chicago, Ill. – After dominating play against rivals Boston Breakers on Wednesday night and earning a dramatic 2-1 road victory, the NWSL-leading Chicago Red Stars head into Saturday’s blockbuster clash with home side Washington Spirit plenty confident. Head Coach Rory Dames recently offered his analysis of the latest win and looked ahead to a third-place Spirit squad that will be highly motivated to chip away at the Red Stars’ current five-point advantage in the table.

Chicago and Washington are scheduled to do battle at 6 p.m. CT on July 25, with a livestream available here.

This past Wednesday’s meeting with the Breakers saw U.S. stars and 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup champs Julie Johnston and Christen Press back in domestic league action, as Johnston went the distance at center back and Press scored the decisive 90th-minute goal after entering as a second-half substitute. Six more players who participated on soccer’s biggest stage had already returned to the field for Chicago in previous games.

“We’re very pleased with how smoothly working all of them back into the team has gone,” said Head Coach Dames. “That might be what we’ve been most excited about in the past couple of weeks.”

In the match against Boston, the Red Stars created numerous quality chances, only to be denied time and time again by the goalkeeping heroics of Stars and Stripes ace Alyssa Naeher. Canada star Melissa Tancredi finally gave the visitors the lead late in the first half on a nice assist by Alyssa Mautz off Arin Gilliland’s cross from the left flank. While the Breakers looked slightly less overwhelmed after the break, Kyah Simon’s equalizer still seemed to come out of nowhere. U.S. striker Press saved the day for Chicago following nice interplay by teammates Samantha Johnson, Sofia Huerta and Jen Hoy.

“In the first 45 minutes, we were very good, had a lot of the ball and created a lot of chances,” assessed Head Coach Dames. “We just have to keep working on being better around the goal and more confident in our finishing. I didn’t think we were bad in the second half either. Maybe we weren’t quite as strong in the midfield, which allowed them to push a bit higher up the field. I’m pleased with the fact we continued to attack and were able score a very nice goal to get the win.”

The man in charge of the first-place squad offered more detailed insight into the adjustments he made following Boston’s 69th-minute tally.

“With about ten minutes left, we switched into a 4-3-3 and pushed Jen (Hoy) up high and Christen (Press) and Sofia (Huerta) wide because we thought that Christen and Sofia would create problems in those spots. It worked in the sense that we created three or four pretty good chances after that, including the one that we scored on.”

The Red Stars’ tactics will likely need to be spot-on if the team is to get a result against the Spirit, as Saturday’s opponent has played a strong campaign thus far and dismantled second-place Seattle Reign FC 3-0 this past weekend, all of the day’s goals coming after the break.

“Looking at that game, you could argue their second half might have been the best performance any team has turned in this year,” said Chicago Head Coach Dames. “Washington is one of the toughest teams to play on the road, so we’ll definitely have our hands full with them. In addition, we’re obviously at a physical disadvantage from having played the game on Wednesday and from all the travel of the past few days, so we’ll have to rotate the lineup again to compensate for that.”

Dames’ side has the luxury of depth at its disposal, as the Red Stars did well even without their World Cup participants, most of whom should be available for the clash with the Spirit.

While stars like U.S. internationals Press (5 goals, 1 assist in 4 games), Johnston and Lori Chalupny are potential difference makers in any game, the group of those who stepped up in their absence includes rookies Huerta (6 goals, 3 assists), Gilliland and Danielle Colaprico, fellow up-and-comers Hoy (3 goals, 4 assists) and Vanessa DiBernardo (2 goals, league-leading 5 assists), and veterans such as right back Taryn Hemmings.

Despite all of its weapons, Chicago should be faced with a tough challenge against a Washington side that has shown some inconsistency – including in a 3-0 loss to hosts FC Kansas City on July 3 – but that is unbeaten at home this year, having bagged wins in five of its six matches at the Maryland SoccerPlex.

With several Spirt stars also back from World Cup duty, it’s unclear who will take the field against the Red Stars on Saturday. In the absence of the internationals, the club was led by rookie defender Megan Oyster as well as two attackers with experience playing for the U.S. senior team, Christine Nairn (5 goals, 1 assist) and NWSL leading goal-scorer Crystal Dunn (8 goals, 2 assists). All three went the distance once more against Seattle, Dunn and Nairn each finding the net in the dominant victory.

While admitting a result won’t be easy to come by in the meeting with the Spirit, Red Stars Head Coach Dames concluded his remarks on a cautiously optimistic note.

“We’re really looking forward to the game,” he offered. “We’re in a good spot and obviously want to keep doing well, but I’d say there’s more pressure on Washington to push forward and win. First of all, they’ve had a week to rest and prepare. Second, they need to make up ground in the table. And third, they’re at home and need to defend their field in front of a big crowd. We’ll just have to be intelligent and compact and put in a good group effort, and we’ll see where it takes us.”

Dames’ squad looks to defend its spot atop the table when it travels to take on third-place Washington Spirit this coming Saturday, July 25. Chicago’s next home match is a nearly sold out blockbuster clash with defending NWSL champions FC Kansas City that will likely feature several World Cup winners on both sides of the ball. Single-game and season tickets for the 2015 Red Stars campaign may be purchased by clicking here or by calling 773-698-6001.

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