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Chalupny, Head Coach Dames optimistic ahead of do-or-die clash with FCKC

By Gunnar Berndt

Chicago, Ill. – Ahead of arguably the biggest game in Chicago Red Stars history, team captain Lori Chalupny has been spreading optimism all week while Head Coach Rory Dames has looked to take pressure off his young squad by painting its opponent in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) semifinals as the clear favorite. The Red Stars host defending champions FC Kansas City on Sunday in a one-leg, do-or die semifinal match at Toyota Park in Bridgeview.

The clash between Chicago and FCKC is scheduled to kick off at 12:30 p.m. CT and will be broadcast nationally on FOX Sports 1.

In Kansas City, Chicago will be facing one of the most star-studded sides in the NWSL, as Head Coach Vlatko Andonovski has at his disposal four 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup winners, defender Becky Sauerbrunn and the attacking trio of Lauren Holiday, Amy Rodriguez (6 goals, 4 assists) and Heather O’Reilly (2 goals, 3 assists). In addition, fellow U.S. internationals Amy LePeilbet and goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart provide defensive stability, and three more players with Stars and Stripes experience, Erika Tymrak, Leigh Ann Robinson and Yael Averbuch, are fixtures in the center of the park.

Earlier this year, superstar Holiday announced she will end her professional career following the conclusion of the 2015 NWSL season.

Offered Red Stars Head Coach Dames, “The fact that all nine of them have caps with the full national team shows just how strong their roster is. Then you think about Holiday retiring and you figure all of her teammates are determined to extend her playing career by one more game so she can go out with the title. Given these factors, they probably shouldn’t lose to us. And quite honestly, we don’t mind that at all.

“For the first time in a long time, we’re clearly the underdog. Most people you talk to are all about FCKC, and rightfully so. They’re a fantastic team and the pressure is on them. They’re the ones who are trying to defend their title and who are coached by the 2013 Coach of the Year and a 2014 and 2015 nominee. It’s on us now to give them a run for their money and on them to prove they belong in the final.”

Following the retirement of legendary midfielder Shannon Boxx in July, the Red Stars still feature three of their four World Cup champions, as 2015 NWSL Defender of the Year nominee Julie Johnston, midfielder Chalupny and star striker Christen Press form the spine of the team.

It will be interesting to see who gets the nod in goal for Chicago, as former backup Michele Dalton appeared to have the job locked down until Canada ace Karina LeBlanc put in a world-class performance against Houston Dash last week in what was meant to be a final start before her own retirement from professional soccer. Powered by LeBlanc’s Player-of-the-Week-winning saves, Chicago ended up tying 1-1, Press providing a dramatic equalizer in the 90th minute.

“The team is feeling good,” offered Red Stars captain Chalupny. “When all of us came back from the World Cup, it was obviously a bit of a challenge trying to reintegrate everyone and to build chemistry. But I really think that in the past three games or so, things have started to feel a lot more comfortable and cohesive on the field. There were a lot of positives to take from the Houston match, including how certain partnerships on the field started to click, and then equalizing late was obviously huge for our confidence.”

Press’ tally was her 10th in just 11 appearances this season, a stunning statistic that has earned the California native a nomination for Most Valuable Player of the 2015 NWSL Regular Season. With so much of Chicago’s offensive output coming from one player, one might be worried about the effect a dip in that player’s form might have on the team. However, Chalupny did not seem concerned in light of quality performances by a number of Red Stars attackers over the course of the season.

NWSL Rookie of the Year candidate Sofia Huerta (6 goals, 3 assists) is second on the team in goals, courtesy of a multiple-game scoring run earlier this year that saw her twice bag the league-wide Player of the Week award before being honored as Player of the Month for May.

“We have plenty of firepower,” said fourth-year Chicago ace Chalupny. “Obviously there’s Sofia, who proved herself with that impressive streak, as well as Jen Hoy, whose numbers are very similar. Then there are some talented veterans in the midfield who also know how to generate offense, such as Alyssa Mautz and Vanessa DiBernardo. I have no doubt that group can step up and create for us at any point.”

While it’s unclear whether Huerta, Hoy (4 goals, 4 assists) and Mautz will all feature in the Red Stars lineup on Sunday, team assists leader DiBernardo (2 goals, 5 assists), veteran defender Taryn Hemmings and a pair of first-year pros, outside back Arin Gilliland and holding midfielder and Rookie of the Year candidate Danielle Colaprico, can be expected to start once more. However, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if Head Coach Dames decides to tweak his usual approach for the clash with FCKC.

“I think that we’ve built a fairly strong foundation in terms of who we want to be and how we want to play,” he offered. “To me, the playoffs is where you look to possibly change things around a bit to throw opponents off and to try to catch them off guard. We have a few different things that we haven’t done before and that we plan on doing this week. So yes, we will still stay true to our identity, just maybe with a bit of a twist.”

The fact two of FCKC’s most successful attackers in 2015, Shea Groom and Sarah Hagen (4 goals, 2 assists each), have struggled for consistent playing time speaks volumes about the quality of the defending champs’ roster. Hagen scored late against hosts Chicago in early August to secure a 2-2 tie for her squad, just over two months after the Red Stars bagged a 2-1 road victory over Kansas City, which is likely to once again feature midfield stalwarts Jen Buczkowski and Becca Moros on Sunday.

“They’re an extremely tough team to play and one that we’ve always had really close, tightly contested battles with,” said Chicago captain Chalupny. “They play a great, possession-oriented style and have a very balanced lineup with plenty of talent all over the field. Their World Cup players are a good example. First, you have Becky (Sauerbrunn) organizing the back, then you have an incredibly talented midfield that includes Holiday and O’Reilly, and Amy (Rodriguez) is always capable of hurting you up top. If we want to win, one of our main goals has to be to interrupt the interplay between those four.”

With the massive semifinal clash between his second-place Red Stars and third-place Kansas City just two days away, Head Coach Dames closed his remarks on a positive note.

“I think we’re in a great spot,” he said. “We feel good about what we want to do and about how we match up with them. We lost just three games all year and have both the third-most goals scored and the third-fewest goals conceded. Those are some pretty good stats that make us confident we can really challenge Kansas City. It’s one game at a time for us now, and we’re looking to leave everything out on the field in this one.”

The Chicago Red Stars can take a massive step toward bringing home the 2015 NWSL trophy this coming Sunday, September 13, as they host Lauren Holiday and defending champions FC Kansas City in their playoff semifinal. Tickets for all Red Stars matches may be purchased by calling 773-698-6001 or by clicking here.

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