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Looks to earn fourth win in fifth regular season match

By Gunnar Berndt

Chicago, Illinois – The Chicago Red Stars players and coaches have been brimming with confidence this week, following a dominant 3-0 win over visiting Boston Breakers that saw several rookies and newcomers step up in the absence of seven World-Cup-bound internationals. With the NWSL leaders traveling to take on Houston Dash on Friday evening, Head Coach Rory Dames and midfielder-forward Alyssa Mautz reflected on the previous performance and provided their thoughts on the task ahead.

The 7:30 p.m. CT clash with Houston will be streamed live here.

Santa Clara alum Sofia Huerta had a breakout match against the Breakers, scoring her first two professional goals and adding her first assist to earn NWSL Player of the Week honors. Fellow rookie Cara Walls also found the net for the first time as a pro, while another first-year player, Arin Gilliland, bagged her first career assist and goalkeeper Michele Dalton recorded the clean sheet in her NWSL debut.

“Sofia got to show some qualities that we knew she had,” said Head Coach Dames. “We liked her partnership with Jen (Hoy), who I thought picked up her work rate and was very good. We’ve said from the beginning that we feel pretty good about the group that we’ve put together, and we spent the whole preseason preparing to play without our internationals. You never quite know where the goals are going to come from exactly, but we definitely weren’t surprised by the individual performances.”

Attacker Mautz started and played 67 minutes for Chicago after sitting out the first three games of the season with a nagging ankle injury. The 25-year-old’s return couldn’t have come at a better moment in the campaign, as the match marked the first time the Red Stars had to do without nearly all of their World Cup stars in 2015.

“It felt good to finally be back and get to be with my teammates on the field,” said Mautz. “It was a bit frustrating just having to sit on the bench watching and knowing I couldn’t go in, but in the end I knew the Boston game was the right time to come back.”

Captain Lori Chalupny, NWSL goal-scoring leader Christen Press, defender Julie Johnston, legendary midfielder Shannon Boxx and veteran netminder Karina LeBlanc had all joined their respective national teams prior to the clash with the Breakers. Mautz admitted the absence of Press, specifically, had been a cause of slight concern among those tasked with producing offense for Chicago.

Said the Missouri native, “Knowing Christen would be gone, I think everyone was asking themselves, ‘Who’s going to step up?’ But the rookies really did step up and it was great seeing that and knowing how excited they were about it.”

While the Red Stars controlled play in the opening 45 minutes and created several quality looks, all of the goals came after the break. Huerta broke the deadlock in the 54th minute by rounding the goalkeeper on a beautiful through-ball by Vanessa DiBernardo, followed by an excellent 70th minute turn by Walls, who left goalkeeper Jami Kranich without a chance on her subsequent rocket off the underside of the crossbar. Huerta completed the score line eight minutes from full time, finishing off a cross by Gilliland.

“In the first half, the nerves showed a little bit for a lot of the girls and it took the group those 45 minutes to settle in,” said Head Coach Dames. “During the break, we talked about two or three things that I wanted to adjust, and I felt that they did a really good job of making those adjustments. As a result, we got a hold of the game much better in the second half.”

Mautz offered an overall positive assessment of the team’s performance.

“I thought it was good out there,” she said. “We definitely kept the ball more than usual. Without Julie Johnston, we’re obviously not getting as many dangerous long balls, but instead we held on to the ball more and strung some passes together. The chemistry was pretty good.”

With his side sitting at the top of the table courtesy of a 3-0-1 record, Dames emphasized the challenge of continuing to remain successful over the course of an entire season. The meeting with Houston will be the Red Stars’ first road match of 2015.

“One of the beauties of this league is that every game is a battle and on any day anybody can beat anybody,” offered Dames. “Even home or away doesn’t really matter all that much. If you can settle into some sort of rhythm and have some consistency, you might have a little bit of an edge. So we’ve just been working on the areas where we want to continue to get better.”

The Dash is one of the few NWSL teams who are affected by World Cup call-ups to a similar extent as Chicago, as they will be without a number of international players as well, including Americans Meghan Klingenberg, Morgan Brian and Carli Lloyd, and Canadians Erin McLeod, Alysha Chapman and Lauren Sesselmann. Three players on that list, Klingenberg, Chapman and Sesselman, are defenders, which is why the club acquired veteran back Toni Pressley this week in a trade with Western New York Flash.

While the Red Stars are coming off their big home win against Boston, which was part of a doubleheader with the Chicago Fire at the MLS side’s home venue, Toyota Park, Houston has struggled ever since it’s season-opening win over visiting Washington Spirit. After drawing 1-1 with hosts Sky Blue FC, Head Coach Randy Waldrum’s team fell 3-2 to last-place Boston, followed by a 2-0 home defeat to defending champs FC Kansas City.

A bright spot in the Dash’s early season troubles has been forward Jessica McDonald. After scoring 11 goals for Portland in 2014, McDonald has already found the net three times this year. The Red Stars’ success in containing the 27-year-old will largely depend on the leadership of defender Abby Erceg, was just announced as captain of New Zealand for the World Cup and who will join up with her national team after Friday’s match.

Chicago Head Coach Dames warned against taking the meeting at BBVA Compass Stadium lightly.

“I’m sure Randy (Waldrum) will have them ready,” he said. “They’re coming off a bye-week and have added Pressley, so it looks like they’re putting some things together. They’ve definitely got a good team and he’s done a good job with them. Houston is never an easy place for us to play, but I think the fact that we’ve played at another big stadium has given us a chance to settle in a bit.”

After outlining some of the specific challenges provided by the Dash, attacker Mautz ended her preview of the clash in Houston on an all-out optimistic note.

“It’s definitely going to be a battle,” she said. “Houston is a very physical, fit team that loves to run, run, run until the very end of the game. So we need to try and exhaust them by keeping the ball as much as we can. I think we’ll be able to do that and get our first road win in the books.”

The Chicago Red Stars look to earn their fourth win in five NWSL fixtures when they travel to take on Houston Dash on Friday, May 15. 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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