The Washington Spirit are facing a tough task today, going on the road to face a Chicago Red Stars team that has looked as good as any team in the NWSL this season. However, with the league entering a strange period where everyone is missing their World Cup players, we’re left with some questions about what the Spirit are in for today in Illinois.
Rather than simply scratch our heads and carry on without answers, we asked our good friend Claire Watkins from Hot Time in Old Town to tell us what to expect.
Black and Red United: The Red Stars are missing as many players as anyone else in the league due to the World Cup. Where do you feel like the remaining squad is strongest, and what spots are you worrying about?
Claire Watkins: Chicago is one of the three NWSL squads maxed out on U.S. Women’s National Team players gone, with four leaving in early May, but they are perched in a relatively decent spot going into the World Cup absence period due to a number of reasons. One main factor is the USWNT taking Morgan Brian to France over (ostensibly) Casey Short, meaning that the U.S. absences pull more from the midfield, a deep area for Chicago, rather than from the backline. Another is that out of their current internationally-capped players, the only additional loss is Sam Kerr (though obviously, her absence is huge). Yuki Nagasato, Danny Colaprico, Katie Johnson, Maria Sanchez, and Short all have international experience, and for a variety of reasons are staying home to help the club out this year.
With all of that in mind, Chicago’s midfield looks sound, anchored by the (miraculously uncapped) Vanessa DiBernardo, and the defense is mostly intact. The question this weekend is who’s going to provide the offensive spark, after two weeks where Kerr really took over, and whether the center-back partnership of Katie Naughton and Sarah Gorden can continue to grow in the face of physical offenses from other teams looking to expose space between them.
B&RU: Do you expect Rory Dames to alter his game plan significantly to make up for the fact that he’s having to do without the world’s only Sam Kerr?
CW: This is a great question, so much so that I don’t actually know the answer. As I see it, Dames has a couple of options with his true No. 9 out of the picture for the foreseeable future. He can slide Katie Johnson into that center forward spot, put Michele Vasconcelos on her left and Yuki Nagasato on her right, and continue on in the 4-3-3 that the team has rolled out in recent weeks with Vanessa DiBernardo as the No. 10.
He could also, um, not do that. We could absolutely see Chicago slot back into their tried-and-true 4-4-2 for the World Cup period, with Nagasato sitting on top of a diamond midfield that would put DiBernardo wider (she played further to the left last year) and Vasconcelos and Johnson up front. I really have no idea! One of those options values possession in the midfield and offense generated through precision passing, while the other understands that the current personnel might need more hard-line options than that. We’ll see!
B&RU: Being able to change games with substitutes is going to be huge in this chaos section of the NWSL season. With a depleted roster, who is the proverbial ace up the sleeve of Dames’ summer hoodie?
CW: The formation question will dictate the answer to this a little bit, but the obvious answer to this question has to be Maria Sanchez. The rookie hasn’t seen a ton of time on the field so far for Chicago, with Dames preferring to ease her into league play, but she’s got ball control and personal flair that is very exciting, and is famously a natural leftie. She’s a player that I wouldn’t expect Dames to hang a result on, but she’s going to be worth a couple of really special moments going forward, when most of the really magical players are a full continent away. I wouldn’t relish being a team playing the Red Stars at an equal (or disadvantaged) result when she comes on the pitch
B&RU: While the NWSL Most Online Player talk tends to go towards players like Emily Sonnett, Katie Stengel, and Rose Lavelle, it appears from the outside that the league’s Most Online Team, top to bottom, is the Red Stars. What is your favorite piece of Red Stars Content from this season?
CW: Wow, lots of choices here. Alyssa Naeher pinning Vanessa DiBernardo behind a locker is very good. Brooke Elby and Morgan Brian equally roasting each other for their personal indoor gaming time is also important. Katie Johnson and Vanessa DiBernardo have very cute dogs, while Nikki Stanton and Sam Kerr have fostered so many. Yuki Nagasato is Spider-man! Also, Rory Dames made an actual snow-man in warmups before what was about to be considered a league-approved contest. Incredible.
I will say, the window of recent content of at least half the starting squad toasting Kerr’s send-off to France with former compatriot Sofia Huerta in what looked like a Houston area Whole Foods really hit for me. It had a number of my favorite things: many bottles of wine, impressive young women in different stages of their lives, some dumb laughs, and a tinge of melancholy towards the passage of time? Real life stuff. Shutting down a grocery store.
I really like that, beyond soccer, this team has that part in them. Success doesn’t have to render you an island, and setbacks don’t either. If anything, the Chicago Red Stars are powered by their years spent working together, and great content is never made in a vacuum. So in a tumultuous year it’s really nice to watch the Red Stars divert back to the power of a Nice Time with Some Friends.
Our thanks to Claire, who writes for Hot Time in Old Town and Equalizer Soccer. She’s also half of the Southside Trap Podcast, and is — like the person that posted this article — one of the five wretched souls on Furtcast.