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Look to remain undefeated through seven against NWSL Shield holders

By Gunnar Berndt

Chicago, Illinois – The Chicago Red Stars look to continue their dominance in the early stages of the 2015 National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) season when they travel to Washington state for a highly anticipated clash with current Shield holders Seattle Reign FC on Saturday. Fresh off a 2-1 away win over defending champs FC Kansas City, and sitting comfortably at the top of the table, Red Stars players and coaches have been confident all week while stressing the importance of respecting their next opponent.

Saturday’s match between Chicago and hosts Seattle is scheduled to kick off at 9 p.m. CT and will be streamed live right here.

Red Stars goalkeeper Michele Dalton opened her comments with a recap of the massive win in Kansas City, which saw defender Taryn Hemmings head home the late game winner after her teammate Sofia Huerta had tallied in her third consecutive match to open the scoring and FCKC veteran Amy LePeilbet had tied things up midway through the second period. The match, which was delayed due to inclement weather, saw the teams battle not only each other but also pouring rain throughout the 90 minutes.

While Kansas City had the edge in possession, the well-organized Chicago defense did well to limit the number of opportunities created by a potent opposition attack led by U.S. internationals Erika Tymrak and Sarah Hagen.

Said goalkeeper Dalton, “When you play in those kinds of conditions, it’s important to go back to the basics, such as maintaining your shape and staying compact. That definitely became more of a focus against Kansas City, and as a result there weren’t many chances from the run of play. The entire game was basically decided on set pieces, and that included the goal we gave up on a corner, which is very unusual for us because we put a lot of work into preparing specifically for those situations.

“All of that goes to show how sloppy and unpredictable the conditions made the game. Things didn’t necessarily go according to the game plan, but that’s just how it goes sometimes. You can’t really train and get ready for a torrential downpour, but I thought we did a good job of dealing with it.”

Head Coach Rory Dames offered a more detailed analysis of his side’s performance in the game.

“Full credit to Kansas City,” he said. “They got on us and ran at a speed we couldn’t match for the first twenty to twenty-five minutes, and then they got up higher and pressed us after the break. At halftime, we had talked about trying to adjust our passing, which didn’t quite work the way we had intended and led to us playing a little more direct than we wanted to. I don’t think we settled down and started passing the ball again until after we gave up the goal. That said, I was pleased with the fact we still found a way to win.”

Chicago is in the midst of a four-game road swing, which the squad kicked off on May 15 with a comeback from two goals down to tie Houston Dash, followed by last week’s victory in the blockbuster clash with FCKC. The match against the defending champions had been regarded by many as the most challenging test thus far of the Red Stars’ impressive early-season form.

“It’s difficult to play one game on the road in this league, let alone two, one of which had a weather delay and then pouring rain throughout,” said Head Coach Dames. “That said, Kansas City had to deal with the conditions as well, so that shouldn’t be an excuse. I don’t think things will get any easier on Saturday. Three games in a row on the road is a lot to ask of anybody, and Seattle is a very dangerous team.”

The Red Stars have continued their NWSL domination without numerous internationals who are set to compete in the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup. Meanwhile, Reign FC has had to deal with the absences of goalkeeper Hope Solo and attacker Megan Rapinoe, who are both preparing to play for the U.S. Women on soccer’s biggest stage.

While Jess Fishlock’s Wales did not qualify for the World Cup, the Seattle holding midfielder will be out due to a red card suspension. However, the NWSL Shield holders still feature several standout players, such as former Stars and Stripes regular Stephanie Cox, forward Beverly Yanez and reigning league MVP Kim Little. Up-and-comer Yanez has already bagged three goals in five appearances this year.

Whether or not the Red Stars stay undefeated against Reign FC will likely depend to a large extent on their success in containing Yanez and Little, who dominated the NWSL last year with 16 goals and seven assists. The 24-year-old is off to a strong start in 2015, having set up teammates for goals on three separate occasions.

Seattle looks to continue its recent run of strong form, which has seen the club down second-place Washington Spirit 3-1 and draw 1-1 with hosts Sky Blue FC. Seventh place in the standings might be considered deceiving, as Reign FC suffered two narrow defeats to potential title contenders early in the season, one a 1-0 away loss to Kansas City and the other a 3-2 decision in the Red Stars home opener, Christen Press scoring the dramatic game-winner for Chicago in stoppage time.

Last week’s Red Stars win at FCKC saw the return of defender Michelle Lomnicki to the starting lineup in place of New Zealand captain Abby Erceg, who recently joined her national side’s World Cup preparations. Lomnicki teamed up with Samantha Johnson to form the center back pairing for the match, while rookie Arin Gilliland and veteran Taryn Hemmings occupied the outside back positions.

“Michelle is a great pro,” said Head Coach Dames. “She had a bit of a nagging injury at the beginning of the season that we’ve been giving her as long as possible to get through, but now it’s great to have her back. Samantha is as good as any starting center back in the league, and Taryn and Arin have played really well too. The backline is perhaps the strongest part of our team. We have eight players who are able to start for us back there. As long as we have four or five of those available, we feel pretty good.”

The Red Stars attack will be powered by midfielder Vanessa DiBernardo, whose four assists are tops in the NWSL, and rookie sensation Sofia Huerta, who is tied for the league lead in goals with five. While many of Chicago’s past meetings with Seattle have been characterized by a physical style, Head Coach Dames stressed his squad’s more technical and attack-oriented mindset this season.

“I would say the physicality in the first two years came more from us than them,” he offered. “In the first game this year, there weren’t that many fouls and they were probably divided up pretty evenly. People have this mentality that we’re still who we were in the past two years, but that’s not who we are anymore.

“Players like (rookie midfielder) Danny (Colaprico) and Rachel Quon are very different from the midfielders we’ve had in the past who were ball winners, destroyers and physical presences. We’re definitely not the physical, aggressive bully team that we’ve been viewed as in previous campaigns.”

Goalkeeper Michele Dalton, who is playing in her first NWSL campaign, reflected on the history of fiercely contested matches between her side and Reign FC since the league’s inception in 2013, and ended on a cautiously optimistic note.

“It sounds like Seattle has presented a challenge in the past, and they certainly did in our first game this season,” she said. “We can’t get caught up in past results but need to stay true to what’s gotten us into first place. Thankfully we got three big points in our match against them in April, and hopefully the confidence from that can carry over to Saturday. If we focus on our strengths and on what we’ve been doing, we should be in a pretty good spot.”

The Red Stars look to remain unbeaten through seven regular season games when they travel to take on current Shield holders Seattle Reign FC on Saturday, May 30. The club’s next home match is on June 20 against Washington Spirit. Single-game and season tickets for the 2015 Chicago Red Stars campaign may be purchased by clicking here or by calling 773-698-6001.

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