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Travel to take on resurging Flash on Saturday

By Gunnar Berndt

Chicago, Illinois – All of this week, Red Stars players and coaches have been warning against taking any of their upcoming tasks lightly. With their team unbeaten through their first seven NWSL games and sitting atop the table, Head Coach Rory Dames and forward Sofia Huerta emphasized the strengths of Saturday’s opponent, Western New York Flash, and the need to remain focused on the day the FIFA Women’s World Cup kicks off in Canada.

The Red Stars take on home side Western New York at 6 p.m. CT Saturday, with a live stream of the match available at www.chicagoredstars.com/live-eng.

Chicago rookie Huerta is currently on a run of impressive form that has seen her bag no less than three individual honors in recent weeks. After becoming the first ever back-to-back NWSL Player of the Week in league history courtesy of a total of four goals and one assist in the meetings with Boston Breakers in Week 5 and Houston Dash in Week 6, Huerta struck again in the following week’s away win over FC Kansas City and just yesterday received the NWSL Player of the Month award for May.

The 22-year-old’s reaction gave insight into her humble personality, as she quoted Head Coach Dames’ address of his squad immediately after it was announced Huerta had won the prestigious honor.

“It’s always nice to get recognized,” she offered, “but Rory actually said, ‘Congratulations to Sofia, but also congratulations to the entire team!’ I couldn’t agree more. I think I got the award because I’ve been scoring, but to be honest I’ve just been finishing off great assists. As Rory also said, this is the first time ever the Red Stars have received this kind of recognition. That’s a tribute to the players, the coaches and the front office for doing a great job in the past few months.”

Most would no doubt consider the Idaho native’s assessment of her own performances overly modest, as her five goals included two veteran-like finishes against Boston Breakers, an excellent individual effort against Houston Dash and a clinical first-time strike on a Vanessa DiBernardo corner against FCKC. Perhaps it’s the team-oriented mindset reflected in Huerta’s statement that has made her side so successful during the opening third of the campaign.

Most recently, Chicago battled NWSL Shield holders Seattle Reign FC to a scoreless draw on the road.

Said forward Huerta, “We weren’t necessarily excited about the way we played, and we didn’t always follow all the things the coaches wanted us to do, but overall it was definitely a solid performance and a good outcome for us. Seattle is arguably one of the best teams in the league and they’re especially strong at home, so anytime you can get a point out of an away game against them, that’s a good thing.”

The Red Stars have been working hard all week to expand their unbeaten run to eight against the Flash.

“Generally speaking, we’re still trying to improve by continuing to focus on the key things that have nothing to do with the opponent,” offered Head Coach Dames. “Some of that is our movement off the ball, our speed of play, and understanding a little better what we need to do in certain areas of the field.”

The man in charge of the NWSL leaders continued by offering a more detailed analysis of Western New York, which overhauled its entire roster after finishing second to last at the end of the 2014 regular season. In anticipation of the World Cup, Head Coach Aaran Lines opted to avoid challenging international absences by banking primarily on up-and-comers who were unlikely to play a part on soccer’s biggest stage.

While the Flash find themselves once more sitting second from the bottom in the table, the Chicago players and staff would be ill-advised to take this as an indicator of the side’s quality. In the month of May, Saturday’s opponent put on four strong performances in a row, as they defeated visiting Boston Breakers 3-1 and fell to Kansas City by a narrow 1-0 margin at home before earning a 0-0 away draw against the defending champs, and most recently downing second-place Washington Spirit 3-1.

“Aaran (Lines) has done a really good job with a mostly young group of players who had yet to prove themselves,” commented Red Stars Head Coach Dames. “Last week we played a team in Seattle that is very experienced and has a lot of veterans who we knew are good at what they do, whereas Western New York has a lot of talented kids who are very excited and who will no doubt be up for the game.”

With the majority of Chicago’s international stars having departed to compete in the World Cup, Dames pointed out parallels between his side and the Flash.

“When each team has its full roster, there are obviously clear differences,” he offered “But as it is, we’re in very similar situations. We finished last week’s game at Seattle with five rookies on the field and Western New York starts several first-year players. They’re probably the only team we’ll play this year that’s as inexperienced as we are, but they make up for it with their pace, their athleticism, their organization, their work ethic, and their excellent transition from defending to attacking.”

While the Red Stars offense in recent matches has been powered by Huerta and NWSL assists leader Vanessa DiBernardo, the entire team impressed with its defensive discipline against Reign FC, perhaps most notably center backs Michelle Lomnicki and Samantha Johnson. The Flash has been carried by all-around cohesive team play, with outstanding leadership from veteran defenders Brittany Taylor and Becky Edwards, and rising U.S. international midfielder Samantha Mewis.

Chicago striker Huerta echoed Head Coach Dames’ note of caution, before providing a cautiously optimistic outlook on Saturday’s clash.

“Western New York has really been improving,” she said. “They’re super athletic, fast and energetic, which should make for a very good matchup. Everyone from their backline to their forwards is solid, and their outside players can really run at our defenders. A lot will come down to being smarter than them, since they have all those dangerous qualities. We know we usually create some opportunities, so it will be crucial for us to put those away. If we could get three points on Saturday that would be huge.”

The NWSL-leading Chicago Red Stars look to remain unbeaten through eight regular season games when they travel to take on Western New York Flash on June 6. The Red Stars and supporters group Chicago Local 134 will be holding a viewing party for the match, as well as for the FIFA Women’s World Cup opener between Canada and China, at AJ Hudson’s Public House in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood.

The club’s next home match is a June 20 blockbuster clash with second-place Washington Spirit. Single-game and season tickets for the 2015 Red Stars campaign may be purchased by calling 773-698-6001 or by clicking here.

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