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Preparations for upcoming NWSL season kicking into high gear

By Gunnar Berndt

Chicago, Ill. – While the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) offseason has given Rory Dames a welcome opportunity to enjoy the company of his baby daughter, the Chicago Red Stars Head Coach has been far from idle since his team’s first ever playoff appearance as a professional club. The Chicagoland native took the time to discuss recent and imminent player moves, the upcoming college draft and preparations for 2016 in general, as well as having gained a new life perspective through fatherhood.

After dominating for long stretches of this year’s NWSL campaign, Chicago ended up reaching the postseason by finishing second behind mighty Seattle Reign FC. Since falling in its semifinal clash with eventual repeat champion FC Kansas City, the club has traded New Zealand captain and three-time FIFA Women’s World Cup veteran Abby Erceg, Canada international Adriana Leon and a first-round pick in the draft to Western New York Flash, in exchange for United States defender Whitney Engen and a fourth-round pick.

Said Dames when asked about his activities during this offseason, “It’s nice to get away for a bit, but at some point you take a look at your season and analyze what worked and what didn’t work and what you need to adjust. In addition to the recent trade, we’re looking to finalize and announce two more high-profile signings in the coming days. Of course we’re also getting ready for the draft and staying in touch with our current players to make sure they’re following the fitness programs we’ve created for them.”

Attacking ace Vanessa DiBernardo, who scored two goals in her debut with Australian topflight club Perth Glory Women over the weekend, is the only one of Dames’ players currently out on loan. However, many of her Red Stars teammates also spend part of the time between campaigns out of market, most commonly to be with family back in their respective home states. Hence, communication is crucial in making sure everyone is in adequate physical shape once the NWSL preseason rolls around in early 2016.

“The way we do it varies by player,” offered the Chicago Head Coach. “Obviously we regularly see the ones who are local. With the others, we communicate via phone, text message or FaceTime. (Strength and Conditioning Coach) Josh (Neff) is in charge of monitoring their offseason work, so right now he has a bit more contact with them than I do. He reports to me, and when I feel that I need to get in touch with anyone, I will. If not, then even better.”

With Abby Erceg and Adriana Leon having proven their talent by way of quality performances in this year’s World Cup, Dames felt compelled to offer his reasoning behind trading the pair to league rivals Western New York.

Said the man in charge of the Red Stars, “Abby was great for us while she was here, but you have to remember that personnel changes are not just about that but also about the salary cap, roster spots and whether you think your depth allows you to make moves that can help you in that regard. We felt that we have another strong center back in Sam (Johnson) and that we should be okay at that position.

“When it came to Dri, we simply looked at the tough competition at forward on our team and figured a player of her caliber could be a true asset to Western New York and also benefit from featuring consistently. While we’re very fond of both players we moved on, it made sense to do so in order to give them a better shot at playing time and to improve our own team in specific areas on the field.”

After leading the Red Stars for two seasons at the amateur level, Dames introduced a three-year strategy for future success prior to the NWSL’s inauguration in 2013. With his side having just wrapped up the final season of the plan’s implementation with its best ever finish at the pro level, the Chicago Head Coach outlined his mindset and approach going forward.

“The strategy was designed to give us a chance to be successful for a long time coming. If you go through our lineup today and include the signings that haven’t been announced, the vast majority of our core are in their early to mid-twenties, meaning they should be around for at least four to five years.

“Our plan now has mostly to do with identifying where we fell short this year and making adjustments that resolve those issues and that are beneficial to team chemistry. We really like our roster, and if we’re going to replace one of our players, it has to be with someone who is not just an excellent soccer player but a quality individual as well.”

Of course, one of the most common ways of adding to a team’s core is by way of the annual NWSL College Draft, whose upcoming edition was just announced as taking place on January 15 in Baltimore, Maryland. While Chicago significantly boosted its squad this year with the addition of first-year sensations Arin Gilliland, Sofia Huerta and 2015 NWSL Rookie of the Year Danielle Colaprico, the recent trade with Western New York leaves the club without any first-round picks for 2016.

“What we’ll be looking for this time is different from previous seasons,” said Dames. “In the past three years, we needed to get the best players that we could and players that could step on the field and make immediate impacts. We don’t need that now, which works out well because the draft won’t be nearly as deep as the previous two versions.

“I’d say that we’re interested in some very specific qualities. If we do our homework and know what we want, then there won’t be too much difference between picking late in the first round and early in the fourth round. Because not all teams have the same needs as us, the players we’ll be looking for should still be available later on. That’s part of why we felt we could afford to trade away our top pick.”

Despite the many tasks that come with preparing for the upcoming NWSL campaign, the absence of a hectic travel and training schedule has allowed Dames to find more opportunities to interact with his 14-month-old baby daughter Olivia. In concluding his remarks, the man who is known to many as a brilliant strategist and tactician obsessed with winning presented a softer, more personal side of himself.

“Now that we’ve had some downtime during the offseason, I’ve actually gotten to spend a lot of quality time with Olivia and it’s given me so much more than I ever could have hoped,” he said. “I’m really enjoying being around her and can’t wait to get her out to some games and around the girls next year. That said, I think we’re going to let her try lots of other things before we go down the soccer avenue. She will be allowed to do whatever she wants and enjoys.

“Having a daughter has no doubt given me a different perspective on what is and isn’t important in life. It doesn’t change how bad I want to be successful in soccer, but at the end of the day you’re coming home after a game and you have a responsibility to be a good husband and father, regardless of whether your team won and whether it was a good performance or a bad performance. When there’s a whole other life involved, it simply changes the dynamic of everything you do.”

Head Coach Rory Dames’ Chicago Red Stars will be battling for NWSL glory throughout the 2016 campaign. Season tickets may be purchased by clicking here or by calling 773-698-6001.

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