Home field advantage in NWSL playoffs could be at stake against star-studded Houston
By Gunnar Berndt
Chicago, Ill. – The Chicago Red Stars take on Houston Dash in the team’s massive National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) regular season finale this coming Sunday at Toyota Park in Bridgeview. The clash is being eagerly anticipated by soccer fans across Chicagoland for a variety of reasons, among them its potential for drama, as Saturday’s fixture between Washington and Seattle could leave the Red Stars in need of a win in order to secure home field advantage in its September 13 playoff semifinal.
Chicago and Houston are scheduled to kick off at 4 p.m. CT on Sunday. Livestreams will be available in English here and in Spanish here. Radio broadcasts may be accessed in English here and in Spanish here, or via smartphone by downloading the TuneIn app and searching for “Chicagoland Sports Radio.”
Red-hot Chicago ace Christen Press hopes to add to her nine goals this season, a total that is all the more impressive given the California native has only played in ten league games as a result of representing the United States in the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup.
“I think the success I’ve had stems from a combination of the freedom I’m given when I play for Chicago and playing in a forward position where I’m really comfortable,” she offered. “Given it’s been a balancing act between several different objectives this year, I’m proud of how I’ve managed that and that I’ve been able to help the team by scoring some goals. My teammates give me the confidence to do that by really showing me that they believe in me.”
However, despite her stunning strike rate following the World Cup, Press insists there is still room for growth.
“Truth be told, I wouldn’t rate all my performances since coming back that highly,” said the talented attacker. “I’ve had a few good games and a few games that could have been better. Part of that is being really tired after a funky season. I was super fit heading to Canada with the U.S. team and then a bit exhausted when I came back. Now it’s about building my fitness back up, which is hard to do in season.”
Press’ fitness was good enough for a standout performance in her club’s most recent match, a 2-0 away win over Western New York Flash in which the 26-year-old scored a wonder goal before the break and assisted on Jen Hoy’s second-half insurance tally. The result snapped a six-game winless streak that had seen Chicago lose its long-held top spot in the standings to Seattle Reign FC.
The Red Stars could secure second place in the NWSL as early as Saturday if Seattle defeats or ties Washington Spirit. Should the Spirit take all three points, Chicago will need a victory of its own on Sunday to lock in home field advantage in its postseason semifinal match. More information can be found here.
In any event, beating the Dash would make for a welcome continuation of the team’s improved form in the pair of recent meetings with Western New York, a 0-0 draw at home and last week’s 2-0 road win.
“It was important for the players to get a victory and have that feeling again,” said Head Coach Rory Dames. “From a coach’s perspective, I’ve been saying for weeks that we were trying different things and trying to find our best lineup after the World Cup players returned. I’d be lying if I said Saturday’s game between Seattle and Washington doesn’t matter at all, but for the most part we now try to be consistent in our approach. In the last two games, we went with a group that we feel pretty good about. We earned two clean sheets and were unlucky not to score in the tie. Overall, I’m optimistic about where we’re at.”
Striker Press had an outstanding start to her campaign back in April and May, tallying four times in three appearances before departing for the World Cup and helping her NWSL side to wins over mighty Seattle as well as Sky Blue FC in the process. Having been with her current club since the summer of 2014, Press provided her assessment of the progression she has seen.
“I definitely think the team has grown a lot from last year,” she said. “Because this season is so disjointed in my mind, it’s hard for me to compare now to before the World Cup, but I would definitely say those early performances were some of the best we’ve had in 2015. The team was playing really smart and getting good results against really good teams.
“That said, now we’ve been through a lot more and we’re more experienced and closer as a group. Along with that, I think we have greater expectations put on us. People used to doubt whether we could compete with the top teams, but now they all know we can and everyone is really hopeful for the playoffs. All we have to do is win two games. It’s really anybody’s title to take at this point.”
Home field advantage on September 13 would certainly be of great help in Chicago’s quest for the trophy. However, Head Coach Dames warned that Sunday’s opponent, Houston, should by no means be taken lightly, despite having been eliminated from playoff contention and despite the Red Stars having previously recorded a 2-2 draw and a 2-1 win away in Texas on May 15 and July 12, respectively.
In addition to its three World Cup champions, defender Meghan Klingenberg and midfielders Carli Lloyd (4 goals in just 11 games) and Morgan Brian, the Dash features a trio of former Red Stars standouts in Canada goalkeeper Erin McLeod and attackers Ella Masar and Jessica McDonald (7 goals, 1 assist). Midfielder-forward Kealia Ohai (4 goals, 5 assists) is also among the key contributors for Houston.
“I don’t think it’s been a secret that they want to finish as strong as they can,” said Dames of the side which recently snapped a four-game losing streak with a 1-0 win over Boston Breakers. “Carli (Lloyd), Meghan (Klingenberg) and Morgan (Brian) are obviously world-class, and I’m sure Erin (McLeod), Ella (Masar) and Jess (McDonald) are excited to come back and play us. I would expect them to treat this like a championship game and put their best effort forward. That’s certainly what we’re preparing for.”
A key addition for Head Coach Randy Waldrum’s Dash has been Brazilian World Cup ace Andressa, who has gone the distance in six games since joining in late July.
“She has really helped them,” offered Chicago forward Press. “They have a strong midfield now and it will be important for us to keep them in check and not let it become a battle of the center mids, since that could prevent us from bringing out the other strengths of our formation. If we keep their midfield out of the game and dictate the tempo, I think we have a great chance to be successful.”
In addition to Press (9 goals in just 10 games), the Red Stars roster features two more World Cup champs, center back Julie Johnston and defender-midfielder Lori Chalupny, as well as several other talented attackers, such as rookie Sofia Huerta (6 goals, 3 assists), team assists leader Vanessa DiBernardo (2 goals, 5 assists) and striker Jen Hoy (4 goals, 4 assists). The Chicago defense is likely to again feature veteran Taryn Hemmings alongside two first-year professionals, holding midfielder Danielle Colaprico and outside back Arin Gilliland.
“Personally, I think it’s really important for us to come out and get a win this weekend,” concluded Press. “Houston has nothing to play for and we need the confidence and momentum heading into the playoffs. If we believe we can win the NWSL this year, we should be able to get three points on Sunday.”
The Red Stars look to secure home field advantage in the postseason when they host superstar Carli Lloyd and Houston Dash for their massive September 6 Fan Appreciation Night and regular season finale at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, which will feature the honoring of retiring Canada international Karina LeBlanc. The FIFA Women’s World Cup trophy will be on display and the first 1,000 fans through the gate will receive limited edition Red Stars trading cards. Immediately following the main event, the University of Missouri will take on Northwestern University as part two of a doubleheader.