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Looks to bounce back from consecutive defeats, climb into third in NWSL standings

By Gunnar Berndt

Chicago, Ill. – This coming Saturday, the Chicago Red Stars look to snap a two-game losing streak in National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) play when they travel to take on third-place Washington Spirit this coming Saturday. The high-profile meeting at Maryland SoccerPlex marks the third of four consecutive away games for Head Coach Rory Dames’ Chicago as well as the team’s third straight clash with a fellow contender for the regular season championship.

The Red Stars face the Spirit on July 9 at 6 p.m. CT, with the action being broadcast live here.

In the recent 2-0 defeat to Western New York Flash, rookie Katie Naughton already made her fourth start of 2016 in place of center back Julie Johnston, who has missed significant time this year due to injury and international duty with the Americans. Naughton admitted the Red Stars’ performance against Western New York left something to be desired and identified the absence of the club’s trio of U.S. aces, Johnston, Alyssa Naeher and Christen Press, as one of the causes.

Said the 22-year-old, “We had the better of the game in first few minutes and created several chances that we probably should have finished, but sometimes things just don’t go your way. After that, Western New York started getting into their groove and putting pressure on us. We couldn’t seem to get out of it for the rest of that half and they ended up scoring. After the break, we continued to struggle with finding a rhythm.

“I believe lineup changes were part of the reason we didn’t perform the way we had hoped. Normally we handle that fairly well, but this time we just didn’t seem to gel. The players in certain parts of the field were on separate pages and were also finding it hard to connect to those behind and in front of them.”

In his own analysis, Head Coach Dames was somewhat less critical of his side’s play and full of praise for the victorious opponent. Having played some quality soccer in a 2-0 defeat to Portland the previous week, Chicago created four quality looks in the opening 45 against the Flash but once again failed to score.

“I’d say we had the better of the first half at Western New York,” said Dames. “Between Sofia (Huerta) sliding a ball across the box in the first minute, Amanda (DaCosta) hitting the bar, Alyssa (Mautz) missing from close range and Jen (Hoy) going just wide on a one-on-one, its seems we should have had at least one goal. Three of our chances came at zero-zero, so I think it becomes a completely different game if we put any of those away. It’s the second time in a row that a lack of finishing really hurt us. I’d be concerned if we weren’t getting chances, but since we are, that means we just have to be a little better around the goal.

“In the second half, Western New York was very direct and pinned us in. We were just physically overrun. There’s no other way to say it. They were better prepared for the game and had a very specific game plan that they executed really well, and we didn’t have an answers to it after the break.”

While the defense around center back Naughton conceded two goals against the Flash, the Red Stars this year have a better goals-against average with the first-year professional in the starting lineup than without her. Nonetheless, the former Notre Dame standout was quick to emphasize where she sees her role in relation to regular starter Johnson, whom she will likely again replace in Saturday’s clash with Washington.

“Julie’s play and maturity on and off the field are years ahead of her age,” said Naughton. “She’s simply the definition of a professional. Yes, there’s some healthy competition, but I know she rightfully has the upper hand. She’s an incredible player who has so much to offer in terms of experience and intelligence at her position, and I’m just trying to learn as much as I can. I definitely look at Julie as a mentor. She’s been so great with me and I have nothing but good things to say about her and our relationship.”

In order to come away with at least a point against the 6-2-2 Spirit, Chicago will no doubt need improved performances all-around. Head Coach Dames offered insight into his squad’s preparations for the meeting on the East Coast, which could see the Red Stars leapfrog their opposition and climb into third place.

“Our focus is always on us and on trying to get better at what we want to do,” said Dames. “In terms of moving the ball, keeping possession and creating chances, we played some of our best soccer this year in the first half against Portland, so that should serve to keep the group positive. This week, we’ve just continued to work toward our usual goals, in addition to cleaning up some specific things. Against Western New York, we had problems in multiple areas on the field, so we’ve addressed all of those one-by-one.

“We’ll be ready to go come Saturday. It’s an important game and really a six-pointer in terms of where both teams are in the table. It’s not just our third straight road game but also our third in a row against one of the top teams in the league. I think the players are up for it and eager to get back on track.”

Following the consecutive defeats, Chicago has dropped to fourth in the table, courtesy of a 5-3-3 record. With U.S. aces Johnston, Alyssa Naeher and Christen Press still away on international duty, the backline should once again feature the reliable trio of Casey Short (tied for 3rd on team with 2 goals), Arin Gilliland and Samantha Johnson. Meanwhile, midfielders Vanessa DiBernardo (3 assists), Danielle Colaprico and Alyssa Mautz (2 assists each) look to set up forwards Sofia Huerta (3 goals) and Jen Hoy (2 goals).

Hosts Washington Spirit will be without a total of five internationals, Ali Krieger and Crystal Dunn having joined U.S. camp for the upcoming friendly against South Africa and Stephanie Labbé, Shelina Zadorsky and Diana Matheson preparing with the Canadian squad for a meeting with France in late July.

Given the absences, the home side will be all the more dependent on the leadership of two players with Stars and Stripes experience, Christine Nairn and Joanna Lohman (3 goals), as well as fellow veteran midfielder Tori Huster (1 goal, 1 assist). While defender Megan Oyster can be expected to again anchor the Spirit backline, Argentina attacker Estefania Banini (1 goal, 1 assist) and former Bayern Munich forward Katie Stengel (2 goals) will seek to contribute to their team’s attack. Nigeria standout Francisca Ordega (2 goals) has provided the proverbial spark off the bench this year.

Said Red Stars Head Coach Dames, “This is our third straight game against a team that’s pretty direct out of the back, and they have some excellent players higher up on the field. Lohman and Nairn are very dangerous in the center and benefit from Huster being a great ball-winner in the holding spot. Up top, Stengel is very good with her back to goal, and they’ve had the luxury of using Ordega as a substitute. She’s incredibly crafty and quick.

“We’ll have questions asked of our backline, but we’ll also ask some of theirs. (Spirit Head Coach) Jim (Gabarra) has done a great job getting his players to buy into his goals, so we expect another tough game.

The sentiment was echoed by Chicago defender Naughton, who concluded her remarks by stressing the importance of bouncing back from the recent setbacks.

“My impression is that Washington is a very talented team with a lot of high-level, skilled players,” she offered. “It seems they’re very dynamic up top and able to put opposing defenses on their heels. They have players coming out of the midfield that can shoot from distance, and at the same time their backline is solid. Coming off Western New York, this will be a good challenge for us. I feel that we really need to do well and prove ourselves again for the league to take notice that we’re still a force to be reckoned with.”

Naughton and company take on Washington Spirit this coming Saturday, July 9. Following their current four-game road swing, the Red Stars return 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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