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Striker Hoy confident as club aims for fifth win in seventh NWSL game this year

By Gunnar Berndt

Chicago, Ill. – Coming off arguably their best performance of the season in last week’s 2-1 away win over Seattle Reign FC, the Chicago Red Stars are brimming with confidence this week as they’ve been preparing for the upcoming meeting with visiting Sky Blue FC. The clash at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, presented by Illinois Women’s Soccer League (IWSL), will be the first home game in nearly a month for Head Coach Rory Dames’s squad, which is riding a five-game unbeaten streak in National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) play that has included four victories and the same number of shutouts.

The Red Stars take on their foes from New Jersey on Sunday, May 29, at 6 p.m. CT, with the match being streamed live in English here and in Spanish here. The first 500 fans in the gate will receive a free mini cowbell compliments of IWSL.

The recent win over Reign FC was a statement game of sorts by striker Jen Hoy, who bagged her first two goals of the 2016 campaign. The 25-year-old was full of praise for the entire team.

“I feel that we finally really came together as a group,” she offered. “We made progress in the week of training leading up to the match, and a lot of our improvements on the field were a result of that. Individual players looked better and we’ve also continued to develop our relationships with one another, which has led to a greater level of comfort all-around.”

Chicago Head Coach Dames has been gradually implementing a new style this year that places a strong emphasis on maintaining possession, especially in the midfield. With the players still adapting to the changes early in the season, it was crucial for the defenders and goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher to do their part by being as difficult to beat as possible, and they did not disappoint. While the Red Stars at times found themselves under significant pressure, they bent but never broke en route to a four-game shutout streak.

While a late Seattle tally from the penalty spot prevented what would have been an NWSL record-setting fifth clean sheet in a row, Chicago did register the longest run of minutes without conceding a goal in league history, at 485. With the Red Stars creating several quality looks against Reign FC and their opponents managing strikingly little of their own, fans of Hoy, Naeher and company have every reason to be intrigued by the current state of the team.

Both of the visitors’ goals on the day came after the break and were set up by attacking midfielder Vanessa DiBernardo. First the 24-year-old released U.S. Women’s National Team ace Christen Press, whose attempted one-on-one finish was blocked by netminder Haley Kopmeyer, the rebound falling right to the feet of Hoy for a simple tap-in. Then DiBernardo hit a beautiful ball from inside the center circle that found its way over the top of the defense and into the path of a streaking Hoy, who calmly slotted past Kopmeyer to complete her brace.

“There has definitely been an adjustment period,” admitted Chicago’s two-goal scorer. “In previous games our main focus was to keep the ball, and so the midfielders didn’t always play a pass that I wanted or I wasn’t always making the runs they wanted. But as we’ve been working on our system for nearly a third of the season, Rory (Dames) has slowly started to give us more freedom of movement up top. As a result, it felt as though the midfielders were really looking to play into us forwards, as opposed to always going sideways or backwards.

“That change enabled us to penetrate much more and my teammates were able to find me in spots where I can be dangerous. It was fun to play that way because I felt that they really trusted me to make an impact if they gave me the ball. That was a great step forward and Vanessa’s assists were a testament to that growing connection.”

With Sky Blue FC coming to town this weekend, the Pennsylvania native is eager to build on the recent success but also warns against becoming complacent. Sunday’s opponents, who finished second from the bottom in the standings last year, have experienced a bit of a rollercoaster ride this season that most recently saw them fall 5-2 to Western New York Flash.

In looking ahead to the upcoming clash at Toyota Park, Hoy once again reflected on the win over Seattle, saying, “The reason any team has success is that they’re never satisfied, and there are still things we’re not all that happy about, especially letting them score in the final moments. I do think the game showed that we’ve gotten closer to reaching our full potential, but we’re not there yet. That’s a good thing though. It’s good to have confidence while knowing there’s still room for improvement, both defensively and offensively. We’re all really looking forward to putting in the necessary work.”

Against Sky Blue FC, the Chicago lineup should include defenders Casey Short (1 goal), Samantha Johnson and Arin Gilliland. Meanwhile, holding midfielder Danielle Colaprico can be expected to feed balls to 2015 team assists leader Vanessa DiBernardo (2 assists this year), who will look to assist striker Hoy in bagging her third goal of the campaign.

The Red Stars’ U.S. aces Naeher, Press and Julie Johnston will not be available, as they are currently preparing with the national team for a pair of friendlies against Japan.

What makes returning to Chicagoland especially exciting for the Red Stars these days is the fact the club once again plays at the venue it called home during its Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) days.

Said fourth-year professional Hoy, “We always really look forward to our games here, especially after such a long away stretch. This season it’s even more special because of the move to Toyota Park, which we’ve all been so excited about ever since it was announced. Not only is it an incredibly professional environment, it also allows us to be on grass, which is simply the perfect surface for soccer. All that makes it a really fun place to play.”

Standing in the way of the Red Stars’ third win in as many home games this season is an eighth-place Sky Blue FC squad that will need improved performances from a back four boasting living legend Christie Rampone, who should see the field after declining a call-up to U.S. camp, as well as the rookie tandem of Erica Skroski and Erin Simon. Meanwhile, the midfield is led by former UCLA standout Sarah Killion and left winger Taylor Lytle (2 assists), with the forward line typically featuring Maya Hayes (2 goals) and another player with plenty of U.S. experience, Tasha Kai.

Rampone’s fellow American international Kelley O’Hara (1 goal, 1 assist) did accept her invitation to join the Stars and Stripes squad for the meetings with Japan.

When asked whether Sunday might be all about attacking early and aggressively, given the opposition’s recent defensive struggles against Western New York, Chicago’s Hoy was quick to dismiss any foregone conclusions.

Said the striker in closing her remarks, “Our tendency is to focus primarily on ourselves rather than the other team, and whether they’ve been doing great or not so well doesn’t really determine our approach. That said, whenever we play Sky Blue, they have an incredibly athletic backline and make it very difficult on us, so we will need to replicate a lot of the things that worked well against Seattle. If we can manage to do that, I think we have a good chance to be successful.”

The Chicago Red Stars will be battling for domestic glory all throughout 2016. Individual and season tickets for the club’s NWSL campaign at Toyota Park in Bridgeview may be purchased by clicking here or by calling 773-697-8699.

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