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Face three former Chicago players, plenty of talent Saturday

By Gunnar Berndt

Chicago, Ill. – Ever since falling to hosts Houston in their 2016 National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) opener on April 16, the Chicago Red Stars coaches and players have been busy identifying problem areas and working to position themselves for a win in their first home match against Western New York on Saturday. The task certainly won’t be an easy one, as outside back Arin Gilliland was quick to point out during a recent sit-down covering the disappointing performance against the Dash and the upcoming clash with a Flash squad that features several former Red Stars and plenty of exciting talent.

Chicago takes on Western New York on Saturday, April 23, at 6 p.m. CT, with tickets available here or by calling 773-697-8699. The match will be streamed live in English here and in Spanish here.

In analyzing the 3-1 defeat at Houston’s BBVA Compass Stadium, Gilliland was sure to emphasize the opponent’s role in denying her side the start to the campaign Chicago fans had hoped for.

“Credit to Houston,” she said. “They came out and killed it. I really think this is their year. They looked like a great team and totally different and revamped from 2015.”

The second-year professional attributed part of the home side’s strong play in the match to having squared off with a pair of fellow topflight outfits during its preseason – Seattle Reign FC and Portland Thorns FC.

Offered Gilliland, “Obviously our result wasn’t what we wanted, and we didn’t feel that we did a great job of representing our club and Chicago. I do think it helped Houston that they had two games against NWSL teams already under their belts. It made them a bit more ready and put them one step ahead of us. The good news is that we can only get better from that game.”

After U.S. Women’s National Team striker Christen Press opened the scoring early on, her Red Stars found themselves unable to contain the Dash’s attacking quartet of Rachel Daly, Carli Lloyd, Janine Beckie and Kealia Ohai. While rookie Daly bagged a goal and an assist, FIFA World Player of the Year Lloyd and another first-year professional, Beckie, also found the back of the net. The latter was set up by Ohai for the day’s final tally.

When asked about her team’s defensive struggles, former Kentucky ace Gilliland pointed to significant offseason changes, which included her own position switch, triggered by the addition of left back and 2015 Norwegian first division standout Casey Short. The Red Stars also traded center back and long-time New Zealand standout Abby Erceg to Saturday’s foe, Western New York.

“The backline this year feels totally different,” admitted Gilliland. “Casey came over here from Europe and has to adapt to an unfamiliar style of soccer. You really can’t expect her to figure everything out in the very first game. Personally, I’m still getting used to playing on the right as opposed to on the left. Part of that is building a relationship with a different outside mid and figuring out each other’s tendencies and where to be when the other person moves around.”

Despite the growing pains, the 22-year-old isn’t concerned about possible long-term implications.

“We have great veteran leaders back there in Sam Johnson and Julie (Johnston),” she said. “It’s just a matter of getting comfortable with each other and continuing to work on things, such as when to join the attack, when to press and try to win the ball, and when to drop back. All of that will come with time. I’m confident the backline will mesh and get better as we go.”

Of course, Chicago’s defensive prospects are greatly helped by the offseason acquisition of Stars and Stripes goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, who made several first-class saves against Houston. At 28, Naeher is the oldest on a roster made up of a majority of players under the age of 25.

While fan favorites Lori Chalupny, Karina LeBlanc and Michelle Lomnicki all ended their professional careers following the conclusion of the 2015 campaign, the club also saw the departures of fellow veterans Erceg, Adriana Leon, Melissa Tancredi, Rachel Quon and Taryn Hemmings.

Said defender Gilliland, “With our team being so young this year, I think it will take us some time to find an identity to stick to and build around. One of our main goals needs to be to find that as quickly as possible and to start rallying around it against Western New York. They’re similar to us in that they’re a young team and also have several national team players, so a lot will depend on having a better understanding of who we are and what we want to do.”

The Flash raised many an eyebrow on the NWSL opening weekend, grabbing a 1-0 road victory over defending champions FC Kansas City, with former Red Stars Erceg and Leon each starting for their new club and Samantha Mewis bagging the game-winner.

In the offseason, Kiwis captain Erceg and Canada forward Leon joined a Western New York side whose defense once again features 2015 stalwarts Abby Dahlkemper and Jaelene Hinkle and which also boasts striker Lynn Williams, rising U.S. international Mewis (each: 4 goals, 4 assists in 2015), newly acquired ex-Red Star Jessica MacDonald (7 goals, 1 assist), and three 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup aces in Nigeria midfielder Halimatu Ayinde, Columbia attacker Lady Andrade and South Korea defender Jeon Ga-Eul. Forward MacDonald has averaged a goal per every two games over the past three seasons.

“They’re a very athletic team that shares a lot of our qualities and that is young just like us,” offered Chicago defender Gilliland. “If we want to win on Saturday, we will have to possess the ball better and try not to make it so much of a running game up and down the flanks. Although we have young players with the endurance to do that, it’s not very smart. A key for us will be moving the ball through midfield and choosing our moments to attack. Western New York did a pretty good job of that last year. I think we can definitely match them on the field, but we need to perform better than we did this past weekend.”

With newly acquired Portugal midfielder Amanda DaCosta doubtful after picking up a knock during warmups in Houston, U.S ace Press (10 goals, 2 assists in 2015), second-year striker Sofia Huerta (6 goals, 3 assists), 2015 team assists leader Vanessa DiBernardo (2 goals, 5 assists) and former Princeton star Jen Hoy (4 goals, 4 assists) will be charged with generating offense for Chicago. Reigning NWSL Rookie of the Year Danielle Colaprico can be expected to once again start at holding midfielder.

Last season, the Red Stars split their series with the Flash, losing 3-1 on the road in early June before recording a scoreless draw at home on August 23 and traveling to Rochester once more for a 2-0 win six days later. Given the promise shown by Western New York at various stages during 2015, Saturday’s clash in Chicago could serve as an early indicator of which of the two sides might meet their high expectations for this year.

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 calling 773-697-8699 or by clicking here.

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