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Would remain in pursuit of NWSL top spot with away win over third-place opponent

By Gunnar Berndt

Chicago, Ill. – This coming Friday, the Chicago Red Stars travel to take on Western New York Flash in the second of four consecutive fixtures away from their home venue, Toyota Park in Bridgeview. The meeting with the Flash will be a test of the character of Head Coach Rory Dames’ squad, which recently fell 2-0 to new National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) leaders Portland Thorns FC for their first defeat following an eight-game unbeaten run.

Chicago takes on Western New York on July 1 at 6 p.m. CT, with the action being streamed live here.

In the recent meeting with Portland in front of a hostile crowd of 16,931, the Red Stars battled their star-studded opposition to a fairly even affair, only to concede twice before the break, courtesy of strikes by Canada legend Christine Sinclair and Denmark striker Nadia Nadim.

Said Chicago midfielder Vanessa DiBernardo, “We were a little disappointed with the outcome because our overall play was good but we gave up a couple of really frustrating goals. There were stretches of the game when we played some of our best soccer of the year. That says a lot, given we were on the road and up against one of the best teams in the league. It’s unfortunate that the key moments didn’t go our way.”

The clash at Providence Park saw yet another solid showing by DiBernardo, who was recently dubbed “our best player in terms of complete 90-minute performances” by Head Coach Dames. Despite the third-year professional having finished the 2015 season tied for second in the NWSL with five assists, many feel she has contributed even more to her side’s play over the course of the first half of the current campaign.

“I’m a lot more comfortable this year,” said the 24-year-old, whose three assists have her once again tops on the Red Stars. “Part of that is filling a different role than I was playing previously and getting on the ball a lot more, which gives me more of an ability to impact the game. I feel like I can just play now and don’t have to think as much. Of course, I’ve only played ten games in my new role, so I’m still working on getting even more comfortable.”

Of course, another likely reason for DiBernardo’s success thus far in 2016 is her temporary stint with Australian topflight outfit Perth Glory Women during the offseason, which saw the Chicagoland native find the net a stunning six times in eight appearances.

“Obviously I’ve now experienced both – not playing at all during the offseason and coming back ready after going on loan,” she said. “It definitely helped me being in a competitive environment, playing games, and training with multiple people rather than trying to stay fit on my own. As a result, when the NWSL season came around, I felt a little more comfortable and prepared for it than some players who maybe hadn’t played in a match since last fall.

“Off the field, being in Australia allowed me to grow as a person. I had already been outside my comfort zone while traveling with the youth national teams, but this was the first time I was abroad for a significant amount of time. I wasn’t always able to talk to family and friends back home because of the time difference, which had me focusing on my own thoughts a lot and trying to learn more about myself. I do think that has made me mentally stronger.”

When asked about the challenges that come with four straight matches at opposing teams’ venues, DiBernardo declined to attribute it too much significance to the stretch. Despite her relatively young age, the midfielder is the longest-tenured member of the Chicago roster, having first laced up for her hometown club during its amateur days in the 2011 edition of the Women’s Premier Soccer League (WPSL).

“Ever since I started playing for the Red Stars, we’ve always had long periods of away games,” she offered, “so I don’t think any of us look at it as something out of the ordinary or something to worry about. We’ve done pretty well on the road so far this year, which is very good for our confidence heading into this road swing. We have the same mindset going into any game, whether it’s home or away. We want to do well and take three points, and Western New York will be no different.”

With Chicago’s U.S. trio of Alyssa Naeher, Julie Johnston and Christen Press away on international duty, there will be increased pressure on DiBernardo to take on leadership responsibilities as her young side’s most veteran player. As the former University of Illinois ace looks to set up forwards Sofia Huerta (3 goals) and Jen Hoy (2 goals), she will have support in the center of the park from fellow attacker Alyssa Mautz and holding midfielder Danielle Colaprico (2 assists each). Meanwhile, the backline should once again feature the reliable Casey Short (tied for 3rd on team with 2 goals), Arin Gilliland and Samantha Johnson.

Friday’s match at Rhinos Stadium in Rochester, N.Y., marks the second meeting between the Red Stars and the Flash in 2016, with DiBernardo and company having grabbed a 1-0 home win in their second fixture of the campaign back on April 23. They may be facing an even sterner challenge this time around against a squad which sits in third place in the standings, courtesy of a 6-4-0 record, and merely trails second-place Chicago by virtue of the head-to-head tie-breaker. Western New York has scored by far the most goals in the NWSL this year with 20 and boasts an impressive goal differential of plus nine.

Most recently, the team led by former Thorns FC Head Coach Paul Riley raised many an eyebrow with a 7-1 thumping of visiting Boston Breakers.

The Flash, which is tasked with replacing Stars and Stripes aces Jaelane Hinkle and Samantha Mewis, will likely also be without Canada goalkeeper Sabrina D’Angelo due to injury. The side’s backline should once again feature the ever consistent trio of Abby Dahlkemper, Elizabeth Eddy and Alanna Kennedy, while former Chicago center back and New Zealand captain Abby Erceg most recently started in the midfield, alongside rookie revelation Makenzy Doniak (2 goals, 2 assists). Strikers Jessica McDonald (5 goals, 2 assists) and Lynn Williams (5 goals, 1 assist) jointly lead the NWSL in goal-scoring.

Said Red Stars midfielder DiBernardo in looking ahead to the week’s blockbuster clash, “I don’t think we’re going to change our style too much because of who we’re playing. We usually keep the same goals in terms of what we want to do on the field and then we just go out there and try to do our best. That said, the stats clearly show that we’re up against a dangerous attacking team, and we know that their forwards are a handful to deal with. They’re very fast and athletic, meaning we have to be extremely organized and defend together as a team. If we do that, I believe a win is absolutely possible.”

DiBernardo and company will be gunning for three points in their meeting with Western New York Flash this coming Friday, July 1. Following its four-game road swing, 5-2-3 Chicago returns home for a Pride Night match against Houston Dash on July 23. Individual and season tickets for the club’s 2016 campaign at Toyota Park in Bridgeview may be purchased by clicking here or by calling 773-697-8699.

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