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Red Stars win or draw would eliminate defending champs from playoff contention

By Gunnar Berndt

Chicago, Ill. – Having extended their current unbeaten run to six games thanks to a morale-boosting comeback draw with visiting Seattle Reign FC over the weekend, the Chicago Red Stars are cautiously beginning to transition into postseason mode as they prepare for Wednesday’s home meeting with FC Kansas City. Head Coach Rory Dames took the time to discuss the hard-fought battle with Seattle, the current state of his squad, and an upcoming opponent that is looking back at an emotional week and will be desperate for points if it’s to avoid being eliminated from playoff contention.

The Red Stars’ September 7 clash with FCKC will be broadcast live on FOX Sports 1.

The early stages of Sunday’s clash with Reign FC were vaguely reminiscent of the gut punch suffered by Chicago at the hands of FCKC in the 2015 National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) semifinals, which saw the Blues grab a two-goal advantage by the midway point of the opening half. However, while the Red Stars conceded a pair of early tallies this time around as well, Dames’ side showed impressive resolve against Reign FC by battling back and drawing level courtesy of strikes by Sofia Huerta and Christen Press before and after the break, respectively.

Said the man in charge of third-place Chicago, “We actually spoke about last year’s KC game in the lead-up to Seattle, so to fall behind like that was definitely disappointing. That said, the most important thing is to see growth. It was the first time this year that we put ourselves in that kind of a situation and were able to pull ourselves out of it, and we even had chances to win it after we got to two-two. Overall, it was definitely more of a positive, although we’ll have to make sure we don’t give away so much early on.”

With the Red Stars tied for second-fewest goals given up in the NWSL, and the offense having found the net five times over the course of the last two games, Dames leaned optimistic in his overall assessment of where things stand.

“We still have to become a little more clinical in front of goal and tighten up some things around our own goal area,” he said. “In terms of what we laid out at the beginning of the year and how we thought we’d progress, we’re starting to make some real strides. You generally want to focus on defending first and then add the attack as you go, and that’s what we’ve done.

“Within our back four, Sam (Johnson), Arin (Gilliland) and Casey (Short) have started every game this season and have been very consistent. (U.S. international) Julie (Johnston) hasn’t quite been back to a hundred percent since the Olympics, and it showed here and there against Seattle. Offensively, we added an important element we were missing in Steph (McCaffrey). I’d say overall we’re not far from where we want to be.”

With Red Stars McCaffrey, Vanessa DiBernardo, Christen Press and Sofia Huerta all having recorded goals or assists of late, an attacker who has quietly seen her stock rise with several starts is second-year professional Cara Walls. Dames refused to assign any negative significance to the fact the Wisconsin native’s stats output doesn’t yet reflect her promising performances on the field.

“Cara’s been in the first eleven six times this year,” he said, “ and of those games we haven’t lost any but won four. There are some key things she does for us, which have been the reason we’ve been able to generate more attacking soccer, get more people forward and sustain more pressure higher up on the field. At this point, I would say Cara has exceeded expectations and is beginning to really grow into the player we thought she could be when we drafted her.”

Given her Head Coach’s praise, there’s a good chance Walls will have another opportunity to prove herself against an eighth-place Kansas City side that kept its slim postseason hopes alive with a 2-1 home victory over Sky Blue FC this past Sunday. The defending champs, who trail the final playoff spot by nine points and need wins in each of their remaining three games just to have a shot at a miracle, have been hit hard this season by the retirement of midfielder Jen Buczkowski and the absences of U.S. aces Amy Rodriguez and Sydney Leroux due to pregnancy.

While FCKC boasts Stars and Stripes center back Becky Sauerbrunn and veteran Brittany Taylor in front of ex-U.S. goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart, the midfield is likely to feature American legend Heather O’Reilly alongside Canada ace Desiree Scott and two more players with U.S. experience, Yael Averbuch (3 goals) and Erika Tymrak (1 goal, 2 assists). Kansas City’s forward pool includes team top scorer Shea Groom (6 goals) and Maryland native Tiffany McCarty (1 goal, 3 assists).

The Chicago defense features it own pair of Red, White and Blue regulars in goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher and center back Johnston as well as the reliable trio of Gilliland, Johnson and Short (tied for 3rd on team with 2 goals). Offensively, Head Coach Dames has been putting his trust in attacking midfielder DiBernardo (tied for 1st in NWSL with 6 assists), the dynamic Huerta (5 goals, 1 assist), recent acquisition McCaffrey (2 goals in 237 minutes for the Red Stars) and fellow U.S. striker Christen Press (leads team with 6 goals).

Captain Press and company will be facing an opponent that has recently had to deal with the passing of Head Coach Vlatko Andonovski’s father and the news of 2014 U.S. Soccer Athlete of the Year and former FCKC fan favorite Lauren Holiday having been diagnosed with a benign brain tumor. In his closing remarks, Chicago’s Dames acknowledged that the events could play into the upcoming meeting between the two sides, in addition to a range of other factors.

“Whenever we play Kansas City, I feel like a lot of our thoughts from before the game go out the window because it’s a Midwest rivalry and because we know each other very well,” he offered. “While they’re not where they’d like to be in the standings, they’re a good team that can’t afford to drop any points, which makes them dangerous. In addition, they’ve had an emotional week with the news about Holiday and Vlatko, so I’m sure they’ll be very motivated to create a positive experience for themselves.

“As always, we’ll put more of the emphasis on what we need to do. It’s been a pretty even series, but we’ve definitely had some good success against FCKC, minus last year’s playoff game. I’ve said all year that there’s a point total we need to hit in order to qualify for the postseason. We’re getting close to it, so our focus will be to continue to get closer, regardless of how or when we actually reach it.”

When the Chicago Red Stars battle defending NWSL champions FC Kansas City this coming Wednesday, September 7, at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, the first 200 fans through the gate will receive a fandanna courtesy of the National Mango Board. Tickets to all Red Stars home matches may be purchased by clicking here or by calling 773-697-8699.

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