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Take on Carli Lloyd, Houston Dash on the road Saturday

By Gunnar Berndt

Chicago, Ill. – With the Chicago Red Stars’ 2016 National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) opener right around the corner, there has been an air of excited anticipation about the club’s preseason training camp this week. Following a barrage of personnel moves in past months, Chicago fans are hopeful their club, which last year reached the playoffs for the first time in its professional history, can successfully integrate several key acquisitions against Saturday’s opponent, hosts Houston Dash.

The Red Stars face Houston on Saturday, April 16, at 7:30 p.m. CT, with the match being streamed live here.

Veteran Chicago icons Lori Chalupny, Karina LeBlanc and Michelle Lomnicki all ended their playing careers during the offseason, thereby adding to roster openings created by the departures of Abby Erceg, Melissa Tancredi, Rachel Quon, Taryn Hemmings and Adriana Leon. While several key contributors from the 2015 campaign are back with the squad this year, two of them, defender Julie Johnston and forward Christen Press, only recently returned from national team duty. The same applies to a pair of brand-new Red Stars, goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher and midfielder Amanda DaCosta.

While Johnston, Press and Naeher featured prominently over the course of the U.S. Women’s pair of victories over Colombia, DaCosta started in Portugal’s defeat to Spain in a 2017 UEFA Women’s Euro qualifier. When asked whether he was more confident in the cohesion among his core group or more cognizant of the difficulty of getting everyone on the same page, Head Coach Rory Dames provided a differentiated response.

“It’s a little bit of both,” he said. “Because of the international absences, we’ve really only had the entire team in training for a few days. Certain players need to establish relationships and familiarity between each other based on their positions on the field, and I think some of that that will take a bit more time. But in terms of a general understanding of our system and our philosophy, we have a lot of people back who were a part of that last year. That certainly helps.

“Although we’ll tinker with a few things and hopefully have another year of growth, all in all we have a pretty good idea of what we want to do and who we are as a team.”

A key figure who is back with Chicago is 2015 NWSL Rookie of the Year Danielle Colaprico, who earned her first call-up to the senior U.S. squad this past November.

“During the offseason, we lost a lot of older, experienced players who had been in the league for a long time, and I think that hurts us,” admitted the 22-year-old. “At the same time, we have many younger players who give us a lot of energy, who are eager to learn and who are a bit more technical. Last year the team improved on 2014 by putting more passes together and by keeping the ball more. The players we’ve brought in now could help us continue to make progress on that.”

In addition to acquiring Naeher from Boston Breakers and DaCosta from Washington Spirit, the Red Stars have also added Chicagoland native and 2015 Norwegian topflight standout Casey Short to their roster. Meanwhile, Houston will once again feature Carli Lloyd (4 goals in 2015), fellow American international Morgan Brian (3 assists) and Brazil ace Andressa in the midfield, complemented by rising attacking menace Kealia Ohai (4 goals, 5 assists). During the offseason, the Dash added another midfielder, Amber Brooks, from Seattle Reign FC.

“They have a few different ways they can line up,” said Chicago Head Coach Dames. “If they play the midfield triangle, any combination of Andressa, Carli, Morgan and Brooks ranks as one of the top two midfields in the league, along with Seattle.  Carli is the FIFA World Player of the Year, so you always have to be aware of where she is. They have a lot of very good, young talent up front, including Ohai, who I think could have a very good year for them.

“Defensively, they went out and got Lydia Williams, one of the top goalkeepers in Australia, so that should help them as well.”

Dames went on to caution against taking last-year’s fifth-place team lightly. His side earned a total of seven points in three meetings with the Dash in 2015, bagging a 2-1 away win over Head Coach Randy Waldrum’s squad in July and drawing 2-2 on the road in May and 1-1 at home in September.

“We’re mindful of this being the third year of their current building cycle,” offered the man in charge of the Red Stars. “Most teams have a three-year plan. If theirs is anything like ours, they could be looking to peak in 2016. And of course it’s never easy to win on the road in this league. We definitely don’t underestimate the challenge.”

The sentiment was echoed by midfielder Colaprico.

“With it being the first game, obviously it’s hard to know what to expect exactly,” she remarked. “That said, Houston definitely has a very good midfield with quality players who are tough and strong and who will want to move the ball. Up front, they have younger players with a lot of energy. They might not be the most technical all the time, but they’re very athletic and definitely able to get in behind, so we need to be on alert. Attacking-wise, we’ve talked about really wanting to go after their defense and putting pressure on them.”

While Naeher and 2015 FIFA World Player of the Year nominee Johnston will look to keep a clean sheet for Chicago, the offensive responsibilities are distributed among a quintet consisting of fellow U.S international Christen Press (10 goals, 2 assists), DaCosta (3 goals), second-year striker Sofia Huerta (6 goals, 3 assists), last season’s team assists leader Vanessa DiBernardo (2 goals, 5 assists) and former Princeton star Jen Hoy (4 goals, 4 assists).

“Despite the departures, I think Rory (Dames) has put together a really talented team,” offered Colaprico, who will be in charge of linking her side’s backline to the attack. “I’m definitely confident in our group and don’t expect us to take several games to settle into our style and tactics. We want to come out strong from the very first game and go on to win the league this year.”

Danielle Colaprico and her Chicago Red Stars will be battling for domestic glory all throughout 2016. Individual and season tickets for the upcoming campaign at Toyota Park in Bridgeview may be purchased by calling 773-697-8699 or by clicking here.

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