The Red Stars got back in the win column this weekend with a 4-0 drubbing of Racing Louisville to keep the team on the right side of the playoff line in sixth place. The win gave a reset of purpose to the squad, with Mallory Pugh getting back to her scoring ways, and Yuki Nagasato scoring her first two goals of the season.
Much has been made this year of the rookie presence on the team, especially as established players move on and off the availability report—it was an indicator of just how dire things have become in the palpable relief in getting a glimpse of Morgan Gautrat on the bench on Saturday, in a welcome sign in her long calf injury recovery.
But if the club does finish the season above the playoff line, it will be due to the veterans steering the group with a steady hand.
“I think the team handled themselves very well, there was no panic. Alyssa [Naeher] told me we were going to be okay, so when she said that I felt a lot better,” head coach Chris Petrucelli said after the match.
While there was some levity to that statement, it does speak to the unique position the Red Stars are in when a brand new head coach, and many players handling serious responsibilities for the first time. The Red Stars have made the playoffs six straight times, and the importance of the voices from players who actually contributed to those steady performances has been reflected in the level of buy-in the team has continued to show even when results are not going their way.
“It was just about hitting reset a little bit this week, not getting focused and caught up on obviously, we were in a little bit of a skid,” Naeher said. “But we’ve been in this league long enough to know that everything is a bit streaky, you’ve got highs and lows and winning streaks and losing streaks.”
Naeher is speaking from experience, specifically as a member of the 2019 Red Stars who only operated in winning or losing streaks, and she has her history with the squad on her side as she keeps the defense focused. A few weeks prior to her recent ankle injury, Arin Wright had echoed a similar sentiment, “Anyone who’s watched this league, this league is wild. And in eight years I’ve been here, I mean, you guys have probably seen where we sit in the table. And somehow we find our way to these final matches.”
The Red Stars didn’t entirely solve all of their problems on Saturday, but the win over Louisville does at least remind everyone of the danger they can present at their best. Pugh had possibly one of the best NWSL performances of her career, in a two goal, two assist exercise in domination that threw her right back into the MVP conversation.
To balance some of the praise, it has to be acknowledged that Chicago got more space from Louisville’s backline than they’d seen in weeks, which says as much about Racing’s ills as the Red Stars’ reset. But there’s no doubt that when they saw the space in front of them, Chicago took it in spades.
Bianca St-Georges’s long diagonal assist to Pugh to start the scoring was her best-placed ball of the season, and Pugh’s first touch on the outside of her right foot to set up her scoring position was world class. For Nagasato’s two set-piece tallies, Pugh opted for hard service, first whipped in at Nagasato’s head and then low and driven for a slick touch to put the Red Stars up 3-0. “I think that anytime you walk away from a loss like [last weekend’s], I think that you have to internally reflect and I think as a group we did that,” Pugh said.
When Chicago’s playmakers are executing that well, they’re going to be difficult to stop. It takes an immense amount of pressure off of the make-shift three-back to open the scoring first, and while Alyssa Naeher had to make a few big stops, they were mostly from shooting positions the team was comfortable giving up. Seven of Racing’s 11 total shots were from outside the 18-yard box, including both of their two shots on target.
Tatumn Milazzo and Zoe Morse were both called into 1v1 situations, especially when Louisville super-sub Jessica McDonald came off the bench in the second half, and despite a few moments of chaos in the box, both came up big. After letting four goals in last week, getting a clean sheet speaks to a level of focus that’s easy to lose this far into the season.
“To have those be the opportunities that we’re giving up that speaks to the commitment of the back-three, the commitment to the No. 6’s to defend, and kind of forced [Louisville] to take those opportunities,” Naeher said.
No matter what the final outcome of the year becomes, what we are seeing now is a more definitive arc to how Chicago has remained competitive despite front office upheaval and absences that should have sunk the season. Veterans are holding a high standard, while still taking things one day at a time, and less seasoned players have never let their faith waver.
“Those guys are pretty tough.” Petrucelli said. “I don’t know, Vanessa [DiBernardo] and Danny [Colaprico], they’ve hardly ever come off the field. And watch the game, they don’t look too tired to me. They look pretty good.”
While some teams are already looking toward rebuilds in 2023, Chicago’s veterans aren’t letting the season slip away just yet. There’s urgency within this core group that has been in this position so many times, and it’s helping the Red Stars hold on.