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Head Coach Dames, defender Johnston offer thoughts on clash with long-time rivals

By Gunnar Berndt

Chicago, Ill. – Following the recent 1-1 draw with undefeated Portland Thorns FC, the Chicago Red Stars look to defend first place in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) standings when they take on visiting Boston Breakers on Saturday. Head Coach Rory Dames and defender Julie Johnston looked ahead to the upcoming clash with confidence while also warning against underestimating an opponent who sits at the bottom of the table but has shown improvements since dropping its first five games of the campaign.

The Red Stars battle rivals Boston on June 18 at 7 p.m. CT, with the match being broadcast live in English here and in Spanish here.

In this past Sunday’s fiercely contested meeting with Portland, Chicago fell behind courtesy of a 24th-minute goal by Canada legend Christine Sinclair, followed by a Christen Press equalizer off an assist by substitute Alyssa Mautz after the break, allowing their side to extend its unbeaten run to eight matches.

Offered Head Coach Dames, “We got off to a slow start and found our way into the game toward the end of the first half. After talking about some things at halftime, the players did a really good job of making those adjustments, and we also felt Alyssa brought a ton of energy into the game. Credit to her for showing her professionalism by coming off the bench and making an impact. In the final ten minutes, I thought we had a bit more left in the tank. It seemed that if anybody was going to win the game, it would be us.

“They’re a good team and so are we. There were some tactical battles that played out and neither team wanted to give too much away on those. That didn’t make for the most exciting game to watch, but tactically we weren’t unhappy with how we performed.”

FIFA Women’s World Cup champion Johnston struck a similarly positive note in her analysis of the match against the most star-studded squad in the NWSL, which remains unbeaten in all of 2016.

“A point against Portland is always a good point,” she said. “Obviously we were going for three, but given how the game went and the caliber of the team we played, we’re definitely okay with the result. With it being a battle for the top spot in the league, that allowed us to learn a lot about ourselves over the course of the 90 minutes, and it’s extremely important to avoid losing such a big game at this point in the season.”

Much of Chicago’s success this year has been thanks to the side’s grit and organizational discipline, which has Johnston and company boasting the second best defensive record in the league, with just six goals conceded in a total of eight games thus far. The U.S. standout was full of praise for her fellow members of the Red Stars back four, Arin Gilliland, Samantha Johnson and offseason acquisition Casey Short, as well as for netminder Alyssa Naeher, who was recently awarded NWSL Player of the Month honors for May.

“Our backline has improved throughout the season,” said center back Johnston. “With three of us now playing regularly for the second straight year, it helps having that experience together. Casey is also in excellent form and is very confident and comfortable with her role. We always work together back there and really trust each other. I’m sure we’ll only keep getting better as we keep working on specific things.

“Of course, it’s also huge for us having the confidence, experience, vision and communication of Alyssa to count on. Playing with her on the national team has been so helpful to me personally. She holds me accountable and really pushes me hard, which plays a big part in allowing me to be at my best.”

In last week’s meeting, both the Red Stars and Thorns FC saw the return of several U.S. regulars to their respective lineups, following the back-to-back friendlies between the Americans and Japan. Chicago’s Johnston, Naeher and Press had all been called up by their country for the pair of matches.

Said the trio’s club Head Coach Dames,“The biggest difference with national team players is the mental component, meaning their confidence and competitiveness. That said, their individual quality on the field is also unique. Alyssa is a world-class goalkeeper and Julie’s confidence and sophistication are now even greater than they were last year. Christen wants most of the chances to fall to her, and our team is set up so they do. All her goals so far have been spectacular, which shows just how special she is around the box.

“We have a few proven internationals like that, and then we have four of five players who have the potential to be in the national team pool and who are right on the cusp. If they keep building their quality and confidence, I fully believe it’s a matter of time for them to get there.”

In addition to goalkeeper Naeher (0.71 goals against average), the Chicago defense boasts fellow Stars and Stripes member Johnston alongside the reliable Gilliland, Johnson and Short (1 goal). The midfield features current team assists leader Danielle Colaprico (2 assists) and last year’s leader Vanessa DiBernardo, both of whom will look to set up the third U.S. international and top NWSL goal-scorer Press (4 goals), with more firepower provided by Jen Hoy (2 goals).

Fans of the league’s first-place squad are hoping for strong displays all-around in Saturday’s clash with a foe whom the Red Stars downed 1-0 on the road on May 22, courtesy of a Press tally, the team’s trademark stingy defending and a missed penalty kick by Boston’s U.S. ace Kristie Mewis. After finishing last in 2015, the Breakers opened their current campaign dropping five straight and failing to score in any of them. However, the side has had two encouraging results in their three most recent games, including a 1-0 win over defending champs FC Kansas City on May 22 and a 1-1 draw with Washington Spirit last Friday.

Offered the Red Stars’ Dames, “In addition to being dangerous on dead balls, they work extremely hard and put you under a ton of pressure by playing direct of balls to try and get through your backline. When they play balls over the top, they do a great job of getting underneath and fighting to win second balls. As a result, if you try to patiently build against them, you have to be extremely alert every time you lose possession because they get numbers up so quickly.

“(Head Coach) Matt (Beard) has done a good job of starting to change things over there. When we beat them a couple of months ago, their players were visibly angry and disappointed, which seems like a clear difference from years past and an indicator of the culture they’re building. Every game is a battle in this league and anyone can beat anyone, but Boston will come here with the added confidence of having taken points off Washington. There’s no question we’ll have to play better than we did in the past few weeks.”

While the Breakers backline features offseason acquisition and American international Whitney Engen (1 goal), Kassey Kallman is the team’s only defender who has gone the distance in all eight games thus far. Meanwhile, the midfield is led by Mewis and the attack by fellow Stars and Stripes regular McCaffrey as well as Australia standout Kyah Simon.

“Playing them two months ago gave us a taste of the kind of team they are this year,” said Chicago center back Johnston. “They’re relentless and will keep battling through ninety-plus minutes. It will be crucial for us to put away our opportunities. The first time around, we had a few against them that we didn’t score on. Then it became a tight game and a back-and-forth, and we needed some last-ditch defending to hold on.

“Generally speaking, we have higher standards now since it’s the middle of the season, and playing a team for the second time allows us to compare the performances in both games. Our goal now is to create more chances than any opponent. That’s the mindset we’re going in with, and we know three points would be huge for our confidence and for trying to break away from the top group in the table.”

Johnston and company take on visiting Boston Breakers on Saturday, June 18. Individual and season tickets for the Red Stars’ 2016 campaign at Toyota Park in Bridgeview may be purchased by clicking here or by calling 773-697-8699.

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