In Spite of Losing Eight World Cup Players, Chicago Holds On To First Place
By Jacqueline Brazzale
The Chicago Red Stars had one goal when they shipped their national team players off to the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup: hold on to the league’s top spot until international players returned.
With those players set to resume club play in the coming days, the Red Stars have met their goal and still remain in a position to keep hold of first place in the National Women’s Soccer League.
The Red Stars lost eight players, a league high, to the World Cup, but no team has adapted better in the absence of those internationals. When Canadian, New Zealand and U.S. players left to represent their respective countries, the Red Stars were sitting in first place of the NWSL with an undefeated 2-0-1 record. In six games without national team players, the Red Stars showcased a deep bench with up-and-coming talent and fought to a winning record of 3-1-2.
The Red Stars have seen several players shine in the past six games to help maintain their team’s first place position, but rookie Sofia Huerta states the team as relied on more than just individual performances.
“The key to staying first place was just sticking to the regular game plan and sticking together as a team. We knew that the 6 games that the national team players were missing were going to be tough. For us, we just wanted to prove that without our national team players, we still had a solid group of girls that could keep a first place spot,” Huerta said.
A flux of players in and out of the lineup, as well as the introduction of four rookies, could have caused the Red Stars to stumble through the middle portion of their season. Instead the Red Stars never missed a beat posting three shutouts and out-scoring opponents 11-6.
The team showed that their success does not hinge on the talent of a handful of players. Instead, the Red Stars’ success stems from a collective team effort and individuals knowing what roles need to be filled.
“We had no choice but to come together as a unit in order to be successful. We have been able to stay at the top of the table by working together to execute what we’ve been trained to do in practice,” Samantha Johnson said. “No matter what players are around you, everyday has been a challenge. I think we all stepped into the roles we needed to step into in order to get the job done.”
Huerta stepped into the role of goal scoring machine, netting six goals in six games. She now sits second in the league in goals scored behind Washington Spirit’s Crystal Dunn. Huerta’s outstanding play throughout May led her to earning a Player of the Month award, marking her as an offensive threat that every opponent has to worry about.
In the absence of net minder Karina LeBlanc, open tryout signee Michele Dalton comfortably took the lead between the posts. LeBlanc started the Red Stars first three games before Dalton took the reigns in early May and recorded three shutouts.
Johnson has started seven consecutive games on the backline for the Red Stars. Johnson, only in her second year in the NWSL, has paired with veteran defenders Michelle Lomnicki and Taryn Hemmings, as well as rookie Arin Gilliland, to form a dependable and stingy defense that is tied for the least amount of goals given up this season.
“We are very fortunate to have a wide spectrum of talent. That can be a credit towards our coaching staff in their efforts to build a strong roster. Not one player is like the other. We have a great balance of inexperienced but hungry players guided by our veterans,” Johnson said
Despite having played the fewest games in the league, the Red Stars currently are in position to regain the league-lead heading into tonight’s matchup in Houston. Chicago has only competed in nine games, while every other team in the league has a minimum of one extra game under their belt.
With or without national team players, the Red Stars have reached the midway point of their season with strong individual and team performances that have made them a number one team in the league.
With national teams players back in the mix, Chicago looks to maintain their first place standing and secure a spot in the playoffs for the first time.