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Head Coach Dames, ex-Breakers ace Naeher stress danger posed by struggling hosts

By Gunnar Berndt

Chicago, Ill. – The Chicago Red Stars look to make it three straight wins in National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) play this year when they travel to take on Boston Breakers on Saturday. The match holds special implications for new Red Stars goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, who became a fan favorite over the course of her combined five years with the Breakers, prior to joining her current team this offseason. The U.S. international and Chicago Head Coach Rory Dames took the time to offer their analyses of the recent 1-0 defeat of expansion side Orlando Pride as well as their thoughts on the upcoming clash with Boston.

The Red Stars look to extend their streak of victories when they take on Boston on Saturday, May 7, at 6 p.m. CT, with a livestream of the match available here.

Naeher, who earned her second consecutive clean sheet against Orlando, reflected positively on the hard-fought win, which saw a second-half tally by Christen Press and a spirited performance by her side to preserve the advantage. On several occasions, Chicago players came up with last-ditch tackles and blocks to contain a talented opposition attack led by American superstar Alex Morgan.

“Our defending was awesome and made me really happy,” said the Chicago netminder. “Regardless of how you’re playing overall, it’s so important to not only see the defenders battling but to also have the midfielders coming back. Everyone put up all they had to keep the ball out of the net, and it was incredible to see that team effort.

“Obviously you can build momentum through exciting offensive plays, but I think it’s underrated how the team can feed off that extra bit of defensive effort and off a teammate putting her body on the line. While we may not always have kept the ball as well as we’d like to, I really believe what we did to keep the clean sheet has the potential to inspire and lift us up.”

While hinting at areas needing improvement, Rory Dames echoed his goalkeeper’s overall assessment. Against the Pride, the Chicago Head Coach opted to field rookie Katie Naughton, who had big shoes to fill as a replacement for center back Julie Johnston. The Stars and Stripes standout started on the bench due to a minor injury.

“We bent but didn’t break,” said Dames. “Although not having Julie in the lineup certainly changed a lot of things, I thought Katie had a great game. And give Orlando credit. They’re a dangerous team that asked a lot of questions of our backline, but I was very impressed with the commitment by the defenders and by the entire group to get back and tackle and do what they had to do to prevent shots.

“There were stretches when we did a decent job of possessing the ball, but we’d like to see a little more of that, and we also need to counter a bit more after going up a goal. That said, the most important thing is to to see out the game when you have a lead, and I was pleased we were able to do that.”

Shot-stopper Naeher was full of praise for defenders Arin Gilliland, Samantha Johnson and Casey Short. Acknowledging the gap left by the absence of Johnston, the 28-year-old then went on to make special mention of the least experienced member of the day’s back four.

“Obviously Julie is an amazing player and an incredibly important leader,” she offered, “but Katie (Naughton) looked good all throughout preseason, so I wasn’t nervous about her coming in at all. She was absolutely awesome back there and deserves a lot of credit for us not giving up a goal.”

Head Coach Dames wasn’t surprised by the strong performance put up by visiting first-year club Orlando.

“Their goalkeeper, their entire backline, their holding midfielder and two of their forwards are internationals,” he said. “Expansion team or not, that’s a pretty good lineup. If I said they impressed me, that would imply I didn’t expect much from them, which isn’t the case at all. They were very good on the day and I think that (Head Coach) Tom (Sermanni) has done a great job with them.”

Chicago’s next opponent, Boston Breakers, underwent a major transformation during the offseason, after finishing in the basement of the standings last year. In addition to the hiring of new Head Coach Matt Beard, fans of the club also witnessed a number of player departures and acquisitions. Given the changes, new Chicago star Naeher, who laced up for Boston from 2010 to 2011 and then again from 2013 to 2015, found it difficult to provide a straightforward perspective on the upcoming clash on the East Coast.

The Breakers have lost three straight to open their 2016 campaign and have yet to find the net, their most recent disappointment coming in the form of a 1-0 home defeat to Portland Thorns FC.

“With all the turnover, I’m not as familiar with them now as I used to be,” admitted Naeher. “That said, they’ve had some talented attacking players returning in Kristie Mewis and Steph McCaffrey, and the backline still has Kassey Kallman, Julie King and Mollie Pathman, who are all solid.

“When you don’t get a win in your first three games, you get hungrier each week, so I think they’ll come out hard against us and have that extra bite to them. Anytime you go on the road in this league, it’s difficult. Going up against a team that’s looking for its first win doesn’t make it easier.

Naeher’s words of caution were echoed by Rory Dames.

“Alyssa is spot-on,” he said. “It’s a whole different team with a new coach, so we can’t go by what they did in the past. Mewis, (Kyah) Simon, McCaffrey and (Whitney) Engen are all very good, and we know it took Portland a dead ball late in the game to get the winner. Boston is putting a lot of new pieces together and implementing a new system and mentality, so it will be interesting to see how they line up exactly. “

Aside from newly acquired U.S. international Engen, Minnesota native Kallman is the only other Breakers defender who has gone the distance in all three games thus far. The team’s midfield is led by Mewis and the attack by fellow Stars and Stripes ace McCaffrey as well as Australia standout Simon.

While the Red Stars are hopeful for Johnston’s return to the back four, holding midfielder Danielle Colaprico is expected to once again feed balls to an attack led by 2015 team assists leader Vanessa DiBernardo and U.S. forward Christen Press (2 goals). After subbing into the match against Orlando in her return from injury, creatively inclined mid Amanda DaCosta may make her first start for Chicago.

Unsurprisingly, Saturday’s meeting with Boston will be a special experience for goalkeeper Naeher.

“I’ve been welcomed so well in Chicago,” she offered. “They’ve really made me feel at home right away. That said, I will always have a special place in my heart for the Breakers, after playing there for such a long time. It will definitely feel a little surreal walking onto the field wearing a different jersey.

“Aside from the personal emotions, it’s an important game for us, and it would be huge to come away with a win. It will definitely be fun playing in Boston again, and I’m really excited about my new teammates. I know they all have my back, and I have theirs. I’m just really looking forward to the game.”

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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