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Red Stars look to defend first place against undefeated Thorns FC

By Gunnar Berndt

Chicago, Ill. – Coming off a somewhat disappointing tie with Sky Blue FC on May 29, the Chicago Red Stars have been spending their time since then seeking the right balance between recovering from minor knocks and preparing for this coming Sunday’s blockbuster clash with Portland Thorns FC. Sitting atop the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) standings, Head Coach Rory Dames’ Red Stars look to remain unbeaten at home this year as they face a team which has yet to lose a single contest in 2016.

Chicago takes on Portland on June 12 at 5 p.m. CT, with the action being broadcast live in English here and in Spanish here. The match is presented by Athletico, which will be handing out gifts to the first 500 fans through the gate.

In its most recent match, Dames’ squad grabbed the lead courtesy of Sofia Huerta’s first strike of the season but ultimately had to settle for a 1-1 draw with visiting Sky Blue FC, after having previously defeated 2014 and 2015 regular season champs Seattle Reign FC 2-1 on the road.

“The win against Seattle was huge because they don’t usually lose at home,” said forward Huerta, “and because we did a great job passing the ball and played very well overall. After that, we obviously didn’t want to draw at our own stadium, so that was definitely disappointing. I think some of it had to do with being up against an opponent that had lost 5-2 (to Western New York) the week before, which made them extremely motivated. Of course we were too, but they just seemed to have that little extra spark. That said, I definitely had some opportunities I could have put away to win the game, and so did others on our team.”

The Red Stars’ efforts of earning their fifth victory in seven games weren’t helped by the fact they had to make do without goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, defender Julie Johnston and forward Christen Press, all of whom had been invited to U.S. camp for the back-to-back friendlies with Japan.

Offered Huerta, “While we have a good enough base of players that we tend to play well even when our internationals aren’t here, that doesn’t mean we don’t miss their quality, their leadership, their intensity and their competitiveness. There’s a reason they get called up to the highest level. It’s because they’re very, very good, and it always gives us a boost when they’re on the field. Julie and Alyssa organizing the back is obviously hard to replace and so is Christen’s finishing.

“Nonetheless, (Head Coach) Rory (Dames) always seems to find a way to guide us through the times when those three aren’t here. It just means we have to come together as a team and make up for it collectively.”

The subject directly touches Huerta, who has bagged all of her seven goals and three assists over the course of nearly two-and-a-half seasons with Chicago in the absence of superstar Press. However, the former Santa Clara standout declined to pay much attention to the peculiar statistic.

“I guess it could be a mental thing,” she offered. “Maybe I feel that I have a more central role because our top goal-scorer is gone, but it definitely has nothing to do with her style and my style not being compatible. I believe they definitely are compatible and it’s just a matter of both of us starting to produce at the same time. Once we do that, it should really benefit us attacking-wise.”

Huerta’s first tally of the current NWSL campaign was set up by Danielle Colaprico, who displayed impressive vision as she fed the ball into the path of her streaking teammate for a one-on-one with Caroline Stanley. The 23-year-old goalkeeper stood little chance on the subsequent fake-out and determined finish into the open goal from a tight angle.

Rather than point to the absence of U.S. ace Press, fellow Chicago attacker Huerta identified different factors altogether as possible reasons it took her until her seventh appearance of 2016 to find the net.

“I didn’t play a competitive game for six months during the offseason,” she offered, “and as a result I needed some time to get back into the swing of things. Then, when you’re not scoring, it’s easy to get down on yourself, which may have had something to do with it too. I’m a forward and we all go through cold streaks and hot streaks.

“Something else that shouldn’t be overlooked is that my goal against Sky Blue came from a beautiful through-ball by Danny, which gave me the clearest path to scoring I’ve had all year. I did have some chances in previous games, but most of those were much harder to put away.”

When asked what areas specifically her side has been addressing in the lead-up to the upcoming clash with mighty Portland, Huerta again reflected back on the performance against Sky Blue FC, whose second-half equalizer came courtesy of a tally by substitute Leah Galton.

“We weren’t defending well enough, so that’s one of the things we’ve been working on,” said Chicago’s second-year pro. “We also didn’t move the ball quickly enough. Our focus has been especially on taking fewer touches in the midfield because we were taking too much time before moving it along and that hurt our possession game. We’re already very good at keeping the ball in our own defensive third, so now it’s all about whether we can keep it in the middle, play quickly and break down the opposing backline.”

The Red Stars, who should be near full strength following the return of their national team trio, boast red-hot netminder Naeher (0.67 goals against avg.) and fellow U.S. ace Johnston on defense, alongside the reliable Arin Gilliland, Samantha Johnson and Casey Short (1 goal). Meanwhile, the midfield features current team assists leader Colaprico (2 assists) and last year’s leader Vanessa DiBernardo, both of whom will look to set up Chicago’s third American international Press (3 goals; tied for first in NWSL), with more firepower provided by Huerta and Jen Hoy (2 goals).

While the Red Stars are currently riding a six-game unbeaten streak, Sunday’s foe Portland Thorns FC has not suffered defeat in any of its seven matches thus far this season. The side led by Head Coach Mark Parsons most recently recorded a scoreless draw with Seattle, following a roaring 4-1 win over Washington Spirit, both results coming at home.

Portland features an impressive lineup of world-class talent, including Meghan Klingenberg and Emily Sonnett on defense and fellow U.S. Internationals Lindsey Horan (3 goals; tied for first in NWSL) and league assists leader Tobin Heath (1 goal, 5 assists) on offense. Also looking to contribute to the attack will be another player with Stars and Stripes experience, Allie Long, as well as Iceland ace Dagny Brynjarsdottir (2 goals), Denmark striker Nadia Nadim and Canada legend Christine Sinclair, who has struggled to put in full shifts due to a nagging Achilles injury.

Said Chicago’s Huerta in concluding her outlook to Sunday’s clash atop the table, “Portland has such a solid foundation of high-caliber players that I have absolutely no doubt they’re going to be difficult to play against. Add to that the fact they’re technical, move the ball fast and are coached well, and you’re looking at a massive challenge. I believe it will be very important for us to keep possession because their players can really hurt you. The less they have the ball, the less they’ll be able to do so.

“We have to avoid defending too much and tiring out too quickly as a result. It’s important for us to remember that while they’re very good, we’re also very good. That should make for a great game that we should all be looking forward to. I’m extremely excited to be getting back on the pitch.”

Huerta and company take on visiting Portland Thorns FC on Sunday, June 12. Individual and season tickets for the Red Stars’ 2016 campaign at Toyota Park in Bridgeview may be purchased by clicking here or by calling 773-697-8699.

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