Look to reclaim first place in NWSL standings with win over FC Kansas City
By Gunnar Berndt
Chicago, Ill. – The Chicago Red Stars look to return to their winning ways and reclaim the top spot in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) standings when they welcome defending champs FC Kansas City to their home venue at Benedictine University in Lisle on Saturday night. While Head Coach Rory Dames’ Chicago is currently riding a four-game unbeaten streak, much emphasis in training this week has been on avoiding mental lapses of the kind that have cost the team wins in two of the recent games.
After a 2-1 road win over Houston Dash on July 12, the Red Stars recorded a somewhat disappointing 1-1 draw with visiting Boston Breakers in the July 18 “Welcome Back, World Cup Heroes” match in front of a sellout crowd. Next, the club defeated Boston 2-1 away in a midweek fixture before having hosts Washington Spirit on the verge of defeat on July 25, only for Crystal Dunn to equalize in the closing stages.
“We’ve mostly been working on things from recent matches and trying to improve in certain areas on the field,” said Head Coach Dames of his team’s preparations for this coming Saturday’s clash. “Of course we’ve analyzed Kansas City and we’re incorporating that into training, but at the same time we continue to put most of our time and energy into getting better at what we want to do every time we take the field.”
Dames provided a more in-depth outline of his staff’s approach this week, much of which has been focused on improving the team’s consistency.
“We haven’t yet put a 90-minute performance together this year,” said the man in charge of the Red Stars. “Now that we have all of our players here, we really want to work on finally doing that. Last week, in the tie with Boston at home, we gave away a goal completely against the run of play. In the Washington game, we had ten minutes left to kill and weren’t able to see out the win because we made one poor choice that led to them scoring.
“Just being able to keep our concentration and doing what we want to do for an entire game will be the biggest key for us during the rest of the year.”
Of course, an added challenge has been the (re)integration of eight 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup players into the squad following their participation on the game’s biggest stage. While one of those players, American legend Shannon Boxx, has since retired from NWSL play, the other seven have all featured in the club’s starting lineup since arriving stateside, including up-and-coming Canada striker Adriana Leon.
“I’m still getting back into the swing of things, but it feels really good to be back and there’s no question that we have a great group,” said the 22-year-old, who joined up with her club for the first time in 2015 after the World Cup, “It’s not a coincidence that we’ve been at the top of the table for most of the season. The team has done really well without the internationals and the girls continue to keep developing and improving.
“Even in the past, I always felt that we had really good players on this team. The biggest difference from last year is that the youngest ones from then are now more experienced and better physically and mentally. In addition, we added some great talent in the draft.”
Among that talent are forward sensation Sofia Huerta (6 goals, 3 assists), midfielder Danielle Colaprico (starts in all 13 games) and outside back Arin Gilliland (13 appearances, 11 starts), all of whom have contributed to Rory Dames’ job being pleasantly difficult these days. After all, the Chicago Head Coach has to determine whether to stick with what has worked over course of the past three months, give preference to his internationals, or continue rotating the lineup as he has been in the most recent matches.
A trio of players who will be nearly impossible to leave off the field are American World Cup champions Julie Johnston, Christen Press (6 goals in 5 appearances) and Lori Chalupny, who have all proven their worth since returning to the team, Press having found the net twice in as many appearances back with the Red Stars.
FCKC features four players of its own who lifted the most coveted of trophies this summer – defender Becky Sauerbrunn and the attacking trio of superstar Lauren Holiday, Amy Rodriguez and American legend Heather O’Reilly. While fellow USWNT veteran Amy LePeilbet adds defensive stability for the club, another pair of players with Stars and Stripes experience, Erika Tymrak and Leigh Ann Robinson, are fixtures in the center of the park alongside holding midfielder Jen Buczkowski.
“Sauerbrunn and LePeilbet are as good as any center back pairing in the league,” offered Chicago Head Coach Dames. “I’m sure their front four of Rodriguez, Tymrak, O’Reilly and Holiday are still trying to figure things out a little bit, but there’s obviously enormous talent there that can hurt you at any given moment. Buczkowski is one of the top two or three, if not the best holding midfielder in the league. So there aren’t many weak spots there.
“The fact Kansas City lost on Wednesday means they likely won’t be satisfied with a point against us, and I’m sure (Head Coach) Vlatko (Andonovski) will get them organized and ready to give us a very tough task. Even though it’s always difficult against them, we also really enjoy these games. They’re a very good team that plays a great style of soccer and asks a lot of questions of their opponents. Playing Kansas City will no doubt allow us to keep learning and make us better as a group.”
Among all of The Blues’ American internationals, perhaps the most dangerous attacking weapon is two-time Olympic gold medalist and reigning U.S. Soccer Female Athlete of the Year Lauren Holiday. The 27-year-old, who announced her retirement from the Red, White and Blue this past Tuesday, will look to help her NWSL side bounce back from the dramatic 3-2 away defeat to Houston Dash in midweek, which snapped a three-game unbeaten streak for fifth-place FCKC.
“We’re really just focused on us and on doing what we need to do in every game,” remarked Red Stars striker Leon, who made her first start since returning from the World Cup in the draw with Washington. “That said, we definitely need to nullify Kansas City’s key players, one of those obviously being Holiday. We have to make sure we stop her from getting on the ball as much as possible. Outside of that, it’s just about finding a way to exploit whatever advantages we can create for ourselves in the game. I believe we have a good chance of being successful on Saturday.”
The Red Stars look to reclaim their top spot in the table when they host FC Kansas City on August 1 in a nearly sold out blockbuster matchup that is expected to feature a total of seven World Cup winners. Single-game and season tickets for the 2015 campaign may be purchased by calling 773-698-6001 or by clicking here.