Red Stars Kick off Road Swing with Massive Clash at Portland

Unbeaten runs on the line as NWSL-leading Chicago embarks on month of away games

By Gunnar Berndt

Chicago, Ill. – Fresh off a confidence-boosting 3-0 win over Boston Breakers, the Chicago Red Stars are faced with the tough task of defending their top spot in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) standings over the course of a four-game road swing that commences this coming Wednesday with a trip to Portland. The midweek meeting is the week’s undisputed blockbuster clash, as the home side sits in second place in the table, trailing Chicago by a mere point.

The Red Stars take on Portland Thorns FC on June 22 at 9 p.m. CT, with the action being streamed live here.

In the recent defeat of visiting Boston, Chicago forward Sofia Huerta scored an early goal in each half for her first brace of the season, with defender Casey Short adding an insurance tally, midfielder Vanessa DiBernardo bagging a pair of assists, and goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher her sixth shutout of 2016. In his postgame comments, Head Coach Rory Dames praised his side’s defensive discipline but also expressed some dissatisfaction over its failure to immediately apply more attacking pressure after finding the net in just the third minute of play.

Later he added, “I thought the players did a good job of keeping their concentration, other than all the offsides in the first half,” referring to a number of calls made against the Red Stars, one of which saw Short’s first strike of the day disallowed. “We had spells in the first half where we looked better than (how) we looked in the previous weeks. We had spells where we got caught with a little less energy. I think the second goal settled the group in, and I thought in the second half we played really well.”

Following its clash with Thorns FC, Chicago will travel to take on Western New York Flash on July 1, Washington Spirit on July 9 and Orlando Pride on July 16. The club’s trio of U.S. regulars, defender Julie Johnston, striker Christen Press and goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, is likely to miss at least the first two of those matches due to the national team’s upcoming friendly against South Africa. Press and Naeher rank as the oldest members of their NWSL squad, despite having only just entered the primes of their careers at 27 and 28 years old, respectively.

“It’s always hard to play away from home in this league,” offered Red Stars Head Coach Dames, “and four in a row will definitely be a challenge, considering how rough three in a row were earlier this year. That said, we take it one at a time and go into each game trying to win. There are also upsides to a stretch like this. For example, it facilitates team-bonding and has a fairly rigid structure. With our internationals gone, our average age will drop significantly, and it helps having the younger players with you as a group the entire time. Because of that, they will sometimes play better on the road than at home.”

In addition to shot-stopper Naeher (0.63 goals-against average) and fellow U.S. ace Johnston, the Red Stars defense also features the reliable trio of Short (tied for 3rd on team with 2 goals), Arin Gilliland and Samantha Johnson. The midfield boasts the side’s top assists duo, Vanessa DiBernardo (3) and 2015 NWSL Rookie of the Year Danielle Colaprico (2), with Chicago’s third American international Press (NWSL-leading 4 goals) powering the attack. Added firepower is provided by Huerta (tied for 2nd in NWSL with 3 goals) and Jen Hoy (2 goals).

Meanwhile, Wednesday’s foe Thorns FC features a roster jam-packed with world-class talents, such as defenders Meghan Klingenberg and Emily Sonnett as well as attackers and fellow Stars and Stripes members Lindsey Horan (tied for 2nd in NWSL with 3 goals) and Tobin Heath (1 goal; NWSL-leading 5 assists). Also looking to make offensive contributions will be another player with U.S. experience, Allie Long, as well as a trio with two goals apiece in 2016, Iceland ace Dagny Brynjarsdottir, Denmark striker Nadia Nadim and Canada legend Christine Sinclair.

Chicago faced off with Thorns FC for the first time this season less than two weeks ago, battling the 2013 league champs to a 1-1 draw at Toyota Park in Bridgeview. According to Rory Dames, fans might be in for a different type of affair this time around.

Said the Red Stars Head Coach, “The burden of setting the tempo of the game will be on Portland because they’re the home team. Playing in front of 15,000 or so, I don’t think it would be acceptable for them to sit deep and prioritize their defensive shape the way they did when we played them at home. They’ll probably be more aggressive and press us higher up the field. We saw several interesting tactical battles play out in our first game against them, and that will no doubt be the case again this time around.”

Addressing the scheduling challenges pertaining specifically to the upcoming match in the Rose City, the Chicagoland native added, “It’s unfortunate we played on Saturday, with Sunday being a recovery day, Monday an off-day, and Tuesday a travel day, which means we won’t have a single training session prior to kickoff. At the same time, since Portland is at home, all indications are they’ll have two days to prepare.

We’ll watch some film when we get there, and we’ll talk about a few things. How the players execute the game plan without being able to train will be interesting to see, but I believe we’re fortunate to have a team with a high enough soccer IQ that it’s able to take information that is provided verbally and implement it fairly well. All we can do is give it our best to try and take three points, and then we’ll see what happens.”

Just how well Dames’ players perform on Wednesday could determine whether either of the two team’s respective streaks will come to an end, with the Red Stars having gone undefeated in eight while Thorns FC has yet to drop a single contest this season, a total of nine matches. Following its four-game road swing, NWSL-leading Chicago returns home for a Pride Night meeting with Houston Dash on July 23. Individual and season tickets for the club’s 2016 campaign at Toyota Park in Bridgeview may be purchased by clicking here or by calling 773-697-8699.

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