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Could challenge for second place in NWSL standings with win

By Gunnar Berndt

Chicago, Ill. – Coming off a 3-1 win at Sky Blue FC that was both convincing and crucial in terms of reaching the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) postseason, the Chicago Red Stars will challenge for second place in the standings when they host Seattle Reign FC this coming Sunday. Recent Red Stars acquisition and U.S. international Stephanie McCaffrey offered her thoughts on the crucial victory in New Jersey as well as the upcoming clash with a Seattle squad that is in desperate need of three points if it’s to keep its own playoff hopes alive.

Third-place Chicago looks to extend its current unbeaten run to five games and its win streak to three games when it takes on fifth-place Reign FC on September 4 at 6 p.m. CT, presented by Nongshim. Livestreams will be available in English here and in Spanish here.

Against Sky Blue FC, forward McCaffrey gave her side the lead with a chipped cross from the right that found its way into the net via the inside of the far post, followed by tallies from fellow attackers Christen Press and Sofia Huerta for a comfortable lead late in the match. Samantha Kerr had the consolation goal for the hosts in second-half stoppage time.

Said McCaffrey, “Whenever you’re on the road and go up three-nothing against a team as good as Sky Blue, that’s very positive. They have a lot of dangerous threats, including midfielders who distribute the ball really well and another three or four really talented attackers. It took a team effort on defense to neutralize those players, and it took a lot of movement and hard work on and off the ball to create space for each other going forward.

“This was a massive game in terms of making the playoffs, and it’s great that we were all on the same page and played well when it mattered.”

In addition to three different Red Stars finding the net, Saturday’s win also featured a standout performance by Vanessa DiBernardo, who bagged the assist on Press’ strike and swung in the corner kick that was flicked on by Arin Gilliland for a simple Huerta finish to make it 3-0.

“Approaching the postseason, the more people you can get hitting their stride, the better,” offered Massachusetts native McCaffrey. “Obviously stats don’t tell the whole story, but when you have three players scoring and your attacking center midfielder helps set up two goals, that can never be a bad thing. I was especially happy for Vanessa because she reads the game incredibly well and is a huge part of our offense by doing so much great work on and off the ball.”

While the Sky Blue FC announcers seemed somewhat apprehensive to take a position on McCaffrey’s opener for Chicago, the 23-year-old herself was quick to clarify.

“Was I trying to shoot for the net? No. But I was thinking that good things might happen if I could clip the ball to the back post. I was actually speculating that Cara (Walls) might be able to head it because she’s really great in the air and she was the only one in the box.”

The tally was McCaffrey’s second in just three appearances for her current club. The former Boston Breakers ace joined the Red Stars via trade in late July and has been thrilled with her new surroundings.

“At this level, the more talent you have around you, the easier it becomes for you personally,” she offered. “Not only can you combine with that talent, but the opposing defense also has to make sure those around you are marked. When you’re next to players like Vanessa, Sof, Cara and Press, it’s really hard for back fours to keep track of everyone. Each of us is capable of scoring and assisting. The fact I was able to get a couple of goals so quickly is a testament to the quality of the whole group.”

While the Chicago attack boasts McCaffrey, fellow U.S. forward Press (leads team with 5 goals), midfielder DiBernardo (tied for 2nd in NWSL with 5 assists) and midfielder-forward Huerta (4 goals, 1 assist), the defense features two more American internationals in goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher and center back Julie Johnston, who can be expected to line up next to the reliable trio of Gilliland, Samantha Johnson and Casey Short (tied for 3rd on team with 2 goals).

In the absence of goalkeeper Hope Solo, who has announced she won’t return for the remainder of 2016, Seattle’s veterans Kendall Fletcher and Lauren Barnes (tied for 1st on team with 2 assists) join forces with Japan regular Rumi Utsugi in the back. Utsugi’s compatriot Hahomi Kawasumi has taken the NWSL by storm (3 goals 1 assist in just 6 games) and looks to combine with a midfield that includes Ohio native Keelin Winters, Scotland star Kim Little (4 goals, 2 assists), Wales standout Jess Fishlock and U.S. ace Megan Rapinoe. Dutch scoring sensation Malon Melis (5 goals, 2 assists) provides firepower up top.

Reign FC having emerged from its month-long Olympics break with a resounding 3-1 home win over rivals Portland, Chicago’s McCaffrey was wise to caution against underestimating Head Coach Laura Harvey’s side, despite its ups and downs this year.

“Looking at the Seattle roster, it’s impossible to highlight just a couple of players because they have so much outstanding talent,” said the striker. “When we play against great individuals like that, it’s crucial that we work extremely hard for each other and that our team defense is exactly what we need it to be. We have to make sure we press well as a group when it’s time to press and drop when we need to drop.”

Although the Red Stars currently hold a comfortable five-point advantage over Sunday’s opponent, the highest-ranked team outside the postseason picture, there’s a still lot at stake for Head Coach Rory Dames’ squad. With Portland a mere point ahead of Chicago, the club from the Windy City hopes to leapfrog its second-place foe with a victory.

Said striker McCaffrey in concluding her remarks, “Is it a must-win from a points perspective? Probably not. But we’ve talked about wanting to play our best soccer and we’re starting to hit our stride. Any less than continuing that upward trend would be a disappointment. We’ll again go out there and hope that fighting for each other and having worked hard in training will help us get the win.”

When McCaffrey and company face off with visiting Seattle Reign FC on September 4, the first 500 fans through the gate will receive a Nongshim gift pack. Tickets to all Chicago Red Stars matches at Toyota Park in Bridgeview may be purchased by clicking here or by calling 773-697-8699.

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