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First place on the line in meeting with defending champs

By Gunnar Berndt

Chicago, Illinois – There was an air of focus and anticipation about Chicago Red Stars training this week, as the NWSL-leading club will travel to take on defending champions FC Kansas City in a true blockbuster matchup on Saturday. Head Coach Rory Dames and defender Arin Gilliland offered their perspectives on the recent comeback draw with hosts Houston Dash as well as on the upcoming clash with third-place FCKC.

Saturday’s 7 p.m. CT meeting may be watched live right here.

The Red Stars are off to a roaring start in 2015, having gone unbeaten in their opening five games, which included a dramatic win over current Shield holders Seattle Reign FC and a dominant victory over Boston Breakers. Most recently, the team went on the road for the first time this year and clawed back from a two-goal deficit to earn a 2-2 tie with the Dash, courtesy of a second-half brace by striker Sofia Huerta that saw the rookie earn her second consecutive NWSL Player of the Week honor.

“We were very happy with the overall play and with how the team responded to the setbacks,” said Head Coach Dames. “The entire 45 minutes after the break was a good run of form. We got higher up on the field and had more width, which allowed us to create chances. Let’s not forget that it was hot and had rained all day. Given we never had to deal with humidity prior to the game, I thought our performance in the second half was quite good and the fact we kept pushing after we tied it late was a great sign.”

Despite the generally positive assessment, Dames pointed out his side’s tendency to struggle in the opening half of matches, and he went on to focus specifically on the pair of goals scored by the Dash. After Houston’s Kealia Ohai went down in the penalty area just before the half-hour mark and Rachael Axon converted from the spot, a textbook 59th-minute counter-attack saw Melissa Henderson set up Ohai for the day’s second tally.

“In the first half, we had a lot of the ball but didn’t really do anything with it,” said Chicago Head Coach Dames. “And then, both of the goals we gave away were the result of transitions after our own corner kicks, which is silly and shows a bit of inexperience.”

Defender Gilliland provided a more in-depth analysis of the team’s performance prior to making tactical adjustments at halftime.

“We were sitting too far back,” she said. “Our forwards were even getting sucked back into our midfield to the point where it forced our midfielders to drop back almost into our backline. That was preventing our outside backs from getting forward and making Houston deal with that as opposed to us having to deal with someone else’s shape. Normally, that’s one of our biggest strengths.”

As the team showed character in bouncing back from the two-goal disadvantage, Gilliland experienced her own redemption story of sorts, as she helped set up Huerta’s late equalizer after her opening-half slide tackle against Ohai had sent Axon to the spot for a 1-0 Houston lead.

“I don’t think I got a huge piece of her, but I definitely went down before I needed to and barely clipped her legs,” said the former Kentucky standout. “She’s a great striker and made a good decision to go down because she knew I shouldn’t have slid at that moment.”

In looking ahead to the highly-anticipated clash with FC Kansas City, Head Coach Dames used the atmosphere in the locker room following the draw with Houston as a positive indicator.

“In the past, we would have felt great about coming back from two down and getting a point,” he said. “I don’t know that the players felt that way this time. I take that as a very good sign. They were disappointed because they thought they should have won. It’s a very different mentality than in previous years.”

While comments out of the Chicago camp all week have been characterized by confidence, three points will not be easy to come by on Saturday. Home side FCKC is currently riding a four-game unbeaten streak that saw the club defeat mighty Seattle 1-0 before earning road wins over Houston and Western New York, which Head Coach Vlatko Andonovski’s side most recently played to a scoreless draw at home. Most impressively, Kansas City has not conceded a goal over the course of its entire unbeaten run.

While cracking the FCKC defense will arguably be the most challenging task for the Red Stars, their next opponent presents challenges all across the field. Even in the absence of World-Cup-bound Americans Lauren Holiday, Amy Rodriguez, Becky Sauerbrunn and Heather O’Reilly, the defending champions are still powered by a quintet of U.S. internationals in goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart, defender Amy LePeilbet, midfielders Erika Tymrak and Yael Averbuch, and forward Sarah Hagen.

Red Stars defender Gilliland warned against underestimating the attacking threat posed by Kansas City, which also features veteran midfielder Jen Buczkowski and up-and-coming striker Shea Groom.

“Having watched all of their games, it seems that they will try to disrupt our shape and keep us from dominating by possessing the ball. When we put pressure on them, they’re very dangerous on counters and have a great, dynamic trio of Tymrak, Groom and Hagen up front who are not going to let us breathe for one second. If we do, they’ll go right by us. We can’t let them push us back and impose their shape on us. We need to control the tempo and the game through our own shape.”

In concluding his remarks, Chicago Head Coach Dames added to his defender’s analysis and provided a summary of his mindset heading into the biggest NWSL matchup of the weekend.

“Kansas City won the trophy for a reason last year,” he said. “Regardless of who is there and who isn’t, they’re a quality team that moves the ball better than anybody else in the league. If the game runs through Buczkowski, and if she’s able to dictate the tempo and change the point of the attack, that will be a problem for us. I think Hagen is just coming into her own up front, and I’ve always been a big Shea Groom fan. Tymrak is one of the most dangerous players in the league running at you with the ball.

“If we start worrying about individual players, we’re going to start losing sleep, so our main concern is keeping the integrity of our team concept. We’re looking forward to the game and to seeing how we match up against them. Most importantly, we want to continue to improve.”

The Chicago Red Stars look to remain unbeaten when they travel to take on defending champions FC Kansas City on Saturday, May 23. The club’s next home match is on June 20 against Washington Spirit. 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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