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Red Stars look to extend unbeaten run Sunday against 2015 regular season champs

By Gunnar Berndt

Chicago, Ill. – This coming Sunday, the Chicago Red Stars face a stern challenge to their four-game unbeaten and shutout streaks in National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) play, as they travel to take on mighty Seattle Reign FC. While 2014 and 2015 regular season champion Seattle will have to make do without three of its key players, the Red Stars’ U.S. ace Christen Press and Head Coach Rory Dames warned against underestimating a team that has proven chemistry and is hungry for a climb up the table.

Chicago squares off with Reign FC on Sunday, May 22, at 6 p.m. CT, with the match being streamed live here.

In analyzing the recent scoreless draw with hosts and defending champs FC Kansas City, Dames praised his players’ response to a tough schedule ahead of the match. After defeating visiting Orlando Pride 1-0 on Sunday, May 1, the team had a short week of training due to hitting the road the following Friday for a Saturday, May 7, meeting with Boston, another 1-0 victory. Upon returning home on Sunday, the Red Stars recovered on Monday, were rained out on Tuesday, had their only day of training on Wednesday, traveled again on Thursday, and earned a point against FCKC on Friday, May 13.

In its most recent match, Chicago needed NWSL Player of the Week-winning heroics from shot-stopper Alyssa Naeher in order to survive a surge by the opposition in the later stages of the second half.

“Having three games in 13 days, including two road games in relatively quick succession, was hard,” said fifth-year Head Coach Dames. “That much travel will always take a toll, and because of that and the fact we only trained once leading up to Kansas City, I always expected us to struggle in the final 15 to 20 minutes of that game. I feel that we’ve handled the challenges extremely well, given we were able to take four points from the two away games. It’s a testament to how hard everyone has been working.”

Forward Press offered a similarly positive assessment of her side’s tie with FCKC.

“We created a decent number of chances if you compare it to the other games we’ve won this year,” she said. “The overall performance by the team was decent, especially in the second half. We had more of the possession, which is a huge feat in itself, considering who we were up against.”

The sentiment was echoed by Rory Dames.

“I thought for the first 25 minutes after the break, we played our best soccer of the season so far,” he remarked. “We were really on the front foot and created three very good chances. After that, Danny (Colaprico), Vanessa (DiBernardo), Arin (Gilliland) and a few others hit a wall and Kansas City found their way a bit more. Luckily, Alyssa came up huge for us and we were able to hang on.”

While acknowledging his side’s grit and discipline since falling 3-1 to hosts Houston Dash in the April 16 season opener, Dames also stressed the need for continued progress, saying, “Have we defended better? Yes. Is our backline more organized? Yes. Are our team defending and shape better? Yes. But we’ve still given away some big chances that we just haven’t been punished for, partly thanks to Alyssa and partly thanks to luck. The way to avoid that is to keep improving on our overall play.

“The first half of the second 45 against Kansas City is more like who we want to be. We want to keep the ball, change the point of attack and have players interchanging between our front line and our midfield. Once we do that, it should help take pressure off our defense as well.”

In two of the three victories Chicago bagged over the course of its current unbeaten run, the team depended on superstar Press for spectacular winners. Despite having tallied three times in five games this year, the 26-year-old admitted she has found goals slightly harder to come by than in 2015.

“I think our transition to a different style may have led to more possession of the ball but perhaps not as many penetrating attacks yet,” she offered. “In addition, I’ve been playing as a number ten a lot, as opposed to up top. When I do occupy the striker role, Rory (Dames) wants me to come into the midfield a lot more to get the ball, the way I did against Kansas City. That takes me farther away from the goal.

“To have a great goal-scoring season, you need a lot of high-percentage scoring opportunities. As a result of my changed role, I haven’t had as many of those this year. The objective is for me to become more of a creator and not just a finisher but to still be able to get into quality scoring positions.”

The Chicago captain will look to continue adapting to her new responsibilities in Sunday’s clash with Seattle, which recently saw Welsh midfield engine Jess Fishlock fall victim to a tibia fracture, nearly five months after having lost U.S. attacking standout Megan Rapinoe for the season due to a torn ACL. In addition, Head Coach Laura Harvey will likely be without the services of Dutch forward sensation Manon Melis, who suffered a knee injury in the early stages of last week’s 1-1 draw with Portland.

Given the current personnel predicaments, Reign FC will depend heavily on the leadership of American goalkeeping giant Hope Solo, the Scotland duo of Rachel Corsie and 2014 NWSL Golden Boot winner and MVP Kim Little, and Corsie’s defensive partner Rachel Barnes. Following a rollercoaster start to its 2016 campaign, Seattle currently sits in fifth place in the standings at 2-2-1.

“When you lose players like Rapinoe and Fishlock, that will always affect you,” offered Chicago Head Coach Dames. “That said, they were still dangerous in the games I’ve seen them in. They still have the ball a lot and have just been a little unlucky around the goal. As long as Little is on your team, you’ll be very hard to beat because you have arguably the most dangerous player in the league coming out of midfield, someone with the ability to do the unpredictable and change the game at any moment.

“In addition, Solo is obviously world-class, and Seattle has a similar back four as last year, minus (newly retired ex-captain Stephanie) Cox. Throw in (Merritt) Mathias, (fellow striker Beverly) Yanez and (midfielder Keelin) Winters, and you’re still looking at a really good team.”

Sitting in second place in the table, the 3-1-1 Red Stars hope for yet another standout performance by goalkeeper Naeher (4 consecutive shutouts) and the backline featuring Gilliland, Samantha Johnson and Casey Short. U.S. center back Julie Johnston started on the bench against FCKC due to a minor injury and may again be replaced by rookie revelation Katie Naughton. Meanwhile, holding midfielder Colaprico will look to connect with DiBernardo, who led Chicago in assists in 2015 and aims to open her account for the season by setting up Press (3 goals) or another one of her attacking teammates.

Said the latter, “In years past, Seattle has been well ahead of everyone else. A lot of that has to do with their system and having the players to execute it. Obviously they’ve suffered key injuries and there are players in new roles, but the fact they’re in transition doesn’t mean we can afford to underestimate them.

“That said, it’s hugely important that we approach Sunday with confidence, knowing we can win games and hang with the top teams in the NWSL. We can’t go in expecting that because it’s Seattle and we’re playing away, we will definitely be on our heels. I think the tables have turned and we should shoot for three points. If we could get the win, that would really make for a great start to the season.”

The Chicago Red Stars will be battling for domestic glory all throughout 2016. Individual and season tickets for the club’s NWSL campaign at Toyota Park in Bridgeview may be purchased by clicking here or by calling 773-697-8699.

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