We’ve finally reached the June international break, and the Red Stars currently sit in third on the NWSL table with 16 points in nine games played.
The team isn’t quite halfway through the regular season yet, but by all expectations, they’ve done very well. 2021 MVP finalist Mallory Pugh is once again a frontrunner for individual awards, with six goals and two assists in seven games. Chicago’s system has also made them very difficult to play, and their only loss thus far came from a one-goal deficit away at San Diego.
If the season stopped now, we’d all surely shake hands, call it a job well done, and wait for the team’s availability report to clear up in the future. But both fortunately and unfortunately, there are 13 more games left on the slate, and Chicago will have to figure out how to keep their momentum going during the international period.
It’s no secret the Red Stars will miss Pugh and Alyssa Naeher as they go through World Cup qualifying with the USWNT, but there’s also the possibility of Bianca St. Georges also heading down to Monterrey with Canada. Arin Wright and Morgan Gautrat are still a few weeks away from match fitness, and the addition of Kayla Sharples to the season-ending injury list this week has left the Red Stars with a few things to ponder about how they want to see out the rest of the season.
What to do with the defense?
The Red Stars’ three-back defensive approach has been a winner this season, despite the growing pains with a young group. The trio of Sharples, Zoe Morse, and Tatumn Milazzo saw Chicago through the worst of their front-loaded schedule, and rookie Amanda Kowalski came in and did a nice job when Sharples went down.
“We had no doubts that Amanda could step in and take on the role,” Morse said after Chicago’s 2-2 draw against Kansas City this weekend. “It meant me shifting into the middle, and I’ve played there once or twice before. So it wasn’t that big of a shift. “
The three-back hasn’t been perfect, as seen in another set-piece goal given up on Saturday, but it has been effective as the best utilization of Chicago’s roster, which has become increasingly imbalanced on all lines. But now the team runs the risk of running its young center-backs into the ground, or even worse — somehow end up with further injury.
“It’s tough having a low amount of center-backs when you have to have three of them,” Kowalski said. “But I think the personnel that we have, I think the shape that we’re in is probably the best one. And it’s one that we’ve been working on all season.”
Morse and Kowalski are right; it doesn’t make sense for Chicago to drop into a back-four for the rest of the season, but therein lies a couple of issues. Emily Boyd will be stepping in for Naeher during the period while internationals are away, which will be the most game-time she’s seen in some time after Cassie Miller locked down the backup keeper spot in 2021 before being traded to Kansas City. Communication between Boyd and the backline will be key, especially without Sharples’s aerial presence to keep other teams honest when sending crosses in.
Outside of the group on the field, which can certainly get the job done, one has to wonder how Chicago approaches balancing a roster in danger of ballooning in size should they bring a fourth center-back in midseason. Kowalski, signed after Tierna Davidson’s ACL tear, is on a multi-year contract, and plans for the three-back also included Casey Krueger, who will be making her eventual return from pregnancy.
If the Red Stars were in a win-now kind of a season, making the move for another center-back would make sense, but they might be stuck in playing the long game instead. In terms of depth, the return of Gautrat will be key for the defensive spine of a team that is carrying high numbers of attacking midfielders and wingbacks.
As it stands, Chicago isn’t the only team that could use a talented center-back, and the options both abroad and in the league might prove too restrictive to make a significant difference this year. Expect Morse to be the quiet leader of the group going forward.
Who scores with Pugh out?
With questions on the defensive end, the Red Stars will have to go into this next stretch of the season without relying solely on shutouts to get results. Pugh’s influence in Chicago’s attack can’t be overstated; even if she were not the team’s goal leader, her ability to pull defenders and create space keeps the Red Stars’ attack from becoming too predictable.
I expect Chicago to rely heavily on their attacking midfield during this stretch, with the right mix of Sarah Griffith, Yuki Nagasato, Vanessa DiBernardo, Jill Aguilera, Sarah Luebbert, Ava Cook, and Ella Stevens proving key to pick up the goal-scoring slack. The Red Stars are at their best when they’re producing through the midfield, rather than sending endless crosses in from outside like they occasionally were forced into against the Current this weekend.
Aguilera and Luebbert have done a nice job in wingback roles, but their greatest utilization in the next few weeks might be to allow them to drift centrally. Rachel Hill can also ask questions of a defense if she’s able to switch to her dominant right foot, but can be defended well if she’s forced to truly play the role of a left-footed wingback. St-Georges availability will also play a large role—while Hill has played both right and left wingback, who most comfortably lines up opposite her will probably dictate how she’s used.
“I think we’re gonna have to try to match up players with styles we’re playing against, or ways that we want to play, or certain parts of the field maybe that we want to try to exploit,” head coach Chris Petrucelli said this weekend, noting that while Chicago will be missing a number of players, so will everybody else. “One of the things that I’m happy about is, over the course of the Challenge Cup and the other parts of the season we played a lot of players and we have a lot of depth. And we can use players in different situations.”
Strength in numbers
Ultimately, Chicago will rely on its system to get them through the rest of the year the same way they have since the season’s beginning. They will stack numbers in the midfield, play through the central box as Plan A, and stretch with width as Plan B. And, as they have all year, they will hold the internal expectation of improvement every week.
As Petrucelli put it: “If you go back and watch us play at the Challenge Cup, and you go back and watch us play now, we’re a better team right now than we were before. And [we’re] hoping that we will be a better team, in July, and August, and September, than we are right now.”
The Red Stars have a week off before they travel to New Jersey for their first meeting with Gotham FC on July 2
Get Chicago's Best Sports Content In Your Inbox!
Become a smarter Chicago sports fan with the latest game recaps, analysis and exclusive content from CHGO’s writers and podcasters!
Just drop your email below!