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Look to extend win streak against defending champs faced with absences, retirements

By Gunnar Berndt

Chicago, Ill. – With his Chicago Red Stars having earned three straight 1-0 wins in National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) play, Head Coach Rory Dames recently took the time to provide his perspective on the state of the team and on the upcoming away fixture against defending champions FC Kansas City. Among the key issues addressed by Dames were recent and imminent retirements affecting Friday’s clash in Missouri as well as his side’s defeat to Kansas City in the 2015 postseason semifinals.

The rematch between Chicago and FCKC is scheduled to kick off at 7:30 p.m. CT, with a livestream available at www.chicagoredstars.com/live-eng.

Despite consecutive shutouts in the victories over Western New York Flash, Orlando Pride and Boston Breakers, the man in charge of the Red Stars wasn’t all smiles about his side’s defending during the month of April, which began with a 3-1 defeat to hosts Houston Dash in the season opener.

“We’ve definitely had some breakdowns in the first few games,” acknowledged Dames. “We just haven’t been punished for most of them, either because (goalkeeper) Alyssa (Naeher) came up big, because somebody made a last-ditch tackle, or because we got lucky. We made two mistakes against Houston and they pounced on both, and Boston and Orlando also got into our box a number of times.

“That said, the biggest difference from last year is that so far we’ve done a better job of responding to mistakes. The belief within the group that we can keep clean sheets and close out games has definitely grown, and I’ve been pleased with our perseverance and our will to keep battling until the end.”

The Chicago Head Coach went on to offer a more in-depth assessment of offseason acquisition and U.S. netminder Naeher, who has a firm grip on the starting position ahead of 2015 revelation Michele Dalton.

“I don’t want to take anything away from Michele,” said Dames. “She was great last year and will be great again when Alyssa is at the Olympics. Both are very good shot-stoppers, but there is an exceptional presence, a calmness and confidence, with Alyssa that spreads into the backline and the midfield. She has played on the biggest stage and knows how to close out games, which has helped us tremendously.”

The recent defensive success has served as somewhat of a vindication of the Red Stars’ decision to trade New Zealand captain Abby Erceg to Western New York during the offseason, with Samantha Johnson and U.S. ace Julie Johnston having paired up at center back in two of the three recent shutout wins.

“I believe the Sam and Julie combination is a really good one,” offered Dames. “When we looked at the 2015 stats, we saw how few goals we gave up when they played together, and it just made sense. I know people were a little nervous after the Houston game, but I think that was more due to most of our players not being involved in any competitive games for several months. We have improved since then.”

The Chicagoland native, who last year led the Red Stars to their first ever postseason appearance as a professional club, did stress the need to keep progressing.

“If we could find a second goal when we have a lead, that would obviously help,” he said. “It’s also important to settle the game down and show more patience when we’re up a goal late, even if it’s just by putting a few passes together in the same area. We did a better job of that against Boston, which put us in a better spot than when they kept serving it into our box and we kept clearing it right back to them.”

The Chicago players hope to give themselves a chance to implement those instructions by grabbing yet another lead against Kansas City. Head Coach Vlatko Andonovski’s squad, which ousted the Red Stars from the 2015 playoffs en route to defending its NWSL crown, has failed to register a win through four games this year. FCKC has had to make do without newly retired legend Lauren Holiday and fellow American international Amy Rodriguez, who is pregnant with her second child.

Said Chicago’s Dames, “In previous seasons, Kansas City had the league’s best player in Lauren and a top-class striker in Amy. When you take those two out of the equation, it changes a lot of the dynamics of that team. You can pass the ball and keep possession well, but you still need somebody special to make a difference when it counts. Them not having two of their most important players is comparable to us losing Julie (Johnston) and Christen (Press). It would be a huge blow to any team.”

U.S. striker Press has picked up where she left off in 2015, scoring three of her side’s four goals this year, including back-to-back winners in the recent meetings with Orlando and Boston. Defender Casey Short also has a tally for Chicago, and reigning NWSL Rookie of the Year Danielle Colaprico has the only assist, with last season’s team leader Vanessa DiBernardo looking to open her account against FCKC.

Meanwhile, Friday’s opponent boasts goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart behind defender and fellow American international Becky Sauerbrunn. The midfield will likely feature three more players with U.S. caps, Erika Tymrak, Yael Averbuch and superstar Heather O’Reilly, as well as Chicagoland native Jen Buczkowski, who has announced the meeting with her hometown club will be the final game of her professional career.

Offered Rory Dames, “Jen was with the Red Stars during our amateur days, when we did whatever we could to keep the club alive, so we feel a strong sense of loyalty to her. I think it will be a very emotional occasion, not just for Jen and for Kansas City, but also for us.”

With yet another U.S. international, Sydney Leroux, out due to pregnancy as well, FCKC most recently suffered its third defeat of the young NWSL campaign, falling 2-1 to visiting Houston.

“Watching that game, I thought (midfielder Mandy) Laddish was fantastic,” said Chicago’s Dames. “Nobody could have complained if she had scored a hat trick. With Jen (Buczkowski) and (Desiree) Scott in the holding midfielder spots, I’m not sure anyone in the league has a better tandem there. Shea Groom is one of the best players that came out of last year’s draft. If she hadn’t gotten hurt, I think she really could have taken off. And then you have Erika (Tymrak) and Heather (O’Reilly), who are both big-time.

“I don’t think Kansas City has lost its identity. They still try to move the ball around and take players on. Probably the biggest difference is that Lauren (Holiday) had the ability to take over and break opponents down on her own with her passing and dribbling. It seems they’re trying to figure out who can step up when the game is up for the taking, a bit like Christen (Press) has done for us.

Of course, the Red Stars dropped their 2015 NWSL semifinal clash with FCKC in bizarre fashion, playing a fairly strong game overall but finding themselves unable to recover from a 3-0 halftime deficit that had been the result of some uncharacteristic defensive errors.

“We really haven’t talked much about that at all,” said Head Coach Dames in concluding his outlook on the rematch. “We learned from the loss, but we also know we won’t really get a chance to show how much we’ve grown until we get back into the same situation. Playing them in the fifth game of the year isn’t that situation, and we’re not looking at the same Kansas City team or the same Red Stars team. One of the things I really enjoy about our group is that the focus is on the here and now, on what we want to do this season and on getting better in each game.”

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 clicking here or by calling 773-697-8699.

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