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Current Red Stars roster features four players from club’s pre-NWSL days

By Gunnar Berndt

Chicago, Ill. – The 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup has brought many new fans to women’s soccer and the top professional competition in the United States, the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL). With the Chicago Red Stars battling for one of the top spots in the standings, and having recently played a national TV game at Portland in front of nearly 16,000, many of those new fans would no doubt be surprised to learn just how different things were a mere three years ago.

The Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) league, which had been the highest level of women’s soccer in the nation for three seasons, ceased operations after the 2011 campaign, citing financial difficulties as one of the main reasons. Amidst their own financial challenges, the Red Stars had gone on hiatus from WPS the previous year and spent their 2011 season in the Women’s Premier Soccer League (WPSL) – a nationwide amateur competition – in an effort to save the franchise and brand.

Given WPS was still where money could be made, the Chicago roster during the club’s WPSL season featured just four players who would later go on to represent the Red Stars in the NWSL. Three of those four, Taylor Vancil, Kecia Morway and Vanessa DiBernardo, were young local products who had yet to graduate college. Only one of the four, DiBernardo, is still with the team today.

With the folding of WPS, many players around the country were facing tough decisions. Needing to make a living, some were lucky enough to find teams abroad on short notice while others opted to call it quits and find full-time jobs outside of soccer. Yet others chose to play for little to no money in a newly founded division called the Women’s Premier Soccer League Elite (WPSL Elite), which allowed standout players to continue competing at a high level while awaiting the future of the pro game in the U.S.

The Red Stars roster for the 2012 WPSL Elite season featured a number of established veterans and aspiring talents who would later compete in the NWSL’s inaugural edition in 2013, the vast majority of them, a total of nine, with Chicago. Of those nine, club captain Lori Chalupny, U-23 U.S. midfielder DiBernardo, defender Michelle Lomnicki and attacker Alyssa Mautz are still with the club in 2015. Chalupny was part of the American squad that won the FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada this summer, after being barred from representing her country for five years due to head injuries.

Red Stars Head Coach Rory Dames, who has been at the helm since the 2011 WPSL campaign, thinks highly of all four.

“Michelle is just a very good person and a great professional,” he said. “Alyssa has gotten better every year and it’s great to see her now playing her best season since 2012. The same goes for Vanessa, who I believe is one the best young players in the country. Lori is an incredible example of where continuing to be passionate about your sport can get you. Her perseverance over the past few years is something everyone on our team can learn from.”

However, Dames’ fondness extends well beyond the quartet of current Chicago players who were with the squad during the amateur days, and even beyond Santacaterina, Morway and Vancil, who all made the jump to the NWSL but retired prior to the 2015 campaign.

“If it weren’t for all of the players who came in and played virtually for free in the WPSL and the WPSL Elite, we might not even have a team today,” said the Red Stars Head Coach. “That’s something that I think some of the players on the team today don’t fully understand. It’s those guys who allowed us to keep the club and the brand alive. We had a lot of top-class players, including several who had been with us in WPS. All of them played purely for the love of the game and to keep women’s soccer on the map.”

Dames coached Chicago to consecutive second-place finishes in his first two years in charge. After falling 2-1 to the Orange County Waves in the 2011 WPSL final, the Red Stars suffered an even more agonizing loss in the 2012 WPSL Elite championship match against another former WPS outfit, Western New York Flash, which emerged victorious from a dramatic penalty-kick shootout.

In talking to Dames, it becomes clear that while the defeats in those big games certainly stung, he never took his eye off the bigger picture and recognizes the symbolic significance of today’s Red Stars roster listing players who fought through the adversity that was women’s soccer just a few years ago.

“It means a lot to me to still have them here because they were here when the situation wasn’t what it is now,” said the Chicagoland native. “There are still a lot of players making huge sacrifices to be in the NWSL, but looking back gives you great perspective and it’s very humbling to think about what those guys did back then. It makes you optimistic that things can continue to improve. We owe it to those who kept our sport alive to keep growing it and keep believing.”

The Chicago Red Stars’ next home match is a true NWSL blockbuster clash, as the club welcomes league goal-scoring leader Crystal Dunn and fellow title favorites Washington Spirit to Benedictine University in Lisle. Tickets for the 2015 Red Stars campaign may be purchased by calling 773-698-6001 or by clicking here.

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