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As the Red Stars make their final playoff push, season takeaways come into view

Claire Watkins Avatar
September 9, 2022

The Red Stars head back into NWSL action this weekend, with a five-game stretch that could ultimately define the 2022 season. Chicago sits just above the playoff line, one point above Angel City, and one point below this weekend’s opponent OL Reign.

Chicago remains adamant they’re taking this stretch one game at a time, with an expectation that steady performances will get them where they want to be by the end of the regular season. But they have a treacherous final five games against playoff contenders, and they haven’t defeated a team above the playoff line since June.

In some ways, it feels like this season has contained two versions of the Chicago Red Stars, and which one wins out will be determined by the way the season ends. The question remains: are playoffs the expectation for the club, and therefore dropping out counts as failure? Or has the team exceeded this year’s expectations, for which a playoff berth would merely be a stepping stone towards the future?

The argument for playoffs as a stepping stone

There’s no doubt that Chicago’s availability report has been a huge hindrance over the arc of the regular season, and the full-team commitment in the face of adversity by players who weren’t expecting this much responsibility is going to pay dividends for years to come.

The development of Zoe Morse as a center-back anchor has been monumental to the team’s success, as has Tatumn Milazzo’s step forward as a 1v1 defender. Rookies Amanda Kowalski, Jill Aguilera, Sarah Griffith, and Ava Cook have shown their tenacity at the professional level, in ways that will only grow into the next year. Sarah Luebbert has had to slot into the team in a variety of roles by necessity, but in the weeks she’s gotten consistent time working within the attack she’s shown exactly how she can stretch defenses on the dribble. Sami Fisher and Ella Stevens have both had nice moments off the bench, as they figure out their best places on the field.

The team should also feel good about their stars that have stepped up this season, especially Mallory Pugh and Bianca St-Georges. Pugh has backed up every bit of hype generated by her signing prior to the 2021 season, and at the age of 24 she is the kind of player you build around for the long-term. When Pugh is locked in, she can carry the team anywhere, both in scoring goals and in finding teammates. St-Georges, 25, has also proven to be an incredibly important piece of the attack when she’s given enough playing time to build chemistry with her teammates.

There’s also an evergreen feeling to the way Vanessa DiBernardo and Danny Colaprico have been playing this season, in a new defensive partnership that nonetheless feels lived-in. Alyssa Naeher also shows no signs of slowing down as she solidified her place as the USWNT No.1 goalkeeper this summer.

It’s also worth looking at the players Chicago is hoping to get back in the offseason. Tierna Davidson is under contract for 2023, and her presence will radically change the stability of the defense, in an equal and opposite impact as her absence. The return of Casey Krueger will ask questions of the team’s formation, but imagining the same system with Davidson and Krueger should also get fans excited about next year. The return of Sarah Woldmoe (alongside the return from injury from Morgan Gautrat) would change the dynamics of the team’s spine in positive ways, as the return of Kealia Watt would to the attack.

No one wants to go into an NWSL season making an argument that you’re here to develop your depth due to absences, or work at a disadvantage due to the removal of an entrenched head coach with way too much power. But if the Red Stars were set up to sink, they’ve swum this whole year, and deserve to be rewarded with a place in the top six.

The argument that the window is further closing

We discussed this topic multiple times last year, when Chicago once again came as close as possible to winning a title without actually getting over the line: Will the Red Stars veterans ever get the trophy they deserve? And when has the window closed?

When Tatumn Milazzo had to exit Chicago’s 4-0 demolition at the hands of the North Carolina Courage in August, Bianca St-Georges had to step in to play in the three-back despite not naturally being a central defender. Milazzo was able to bounce back and play against Racing Louisville the following week, but the team’s roster tightrope has never felt so thin.

That sort of “making it work” rotation has been the Red Stars’ mode of operation all year, but it also speaks to the situation players have to navigate due to front office inactivity. Chicago replaced Davidson with Kowalski on a rookie contract, and did not make any moves to further shore up the defense after the loss of Kayla Sharples to an ACL injury. The team also did not come away from the secondary transfer market with any extra attacking talent to pair with Pugh to solve woes at the other end.

The availability report comes into play here as well, but if roster overhead means that the Red Stars can’t make moves to win it all, one has to wonder if that moment will ever come with the veterans that got them here. Because the main driver towards Chicago’s reluctance to move for final pieces could be coming from the same source as in many years past: existing contracts.

The NWSL has entered into its new free agency era, and suddenly the Red Stars are going to also have to compete for a number of players that they already have on their roster. Danny Colaprico, Vanessa DiBernardo, Morgan Gautrat, Rachel Hill, Yuki Nagasato, Kealia Watt, and Arin Wright are all eligible to immediately enter free agency under the new terms of the collective bargaining agreement, according to the NWSLPA.

There’s been some conflict already between the NWSL and the Players Association as to whether players with a contract option are eligible for free agency, and that affects the Red Stars too. Colaprico, DiBernardo, Gautrat, Hill, and Wright all have team options extending into 2023, meaning Chicago could choose to extend them for one more year. Teams contend that those options block a player from entering free agency right away; the union says since those options give teams all of the power and were negotiated before the collective bargaining agreement, and therefore should not be counted as a contractual obligation.

Chicago has made moves to get out from under expensive contracts before, perhaps most notably when sending Nagasato to Louisville prior to the 2021 season (whether she returned at a lower salary is unknown). They also have cited the signings of their formerly national team allocated players as factors in the Red Stars’ slow offseason last year—Alyssa Naeher, Krueger, Pugh, and Davidson are all under contract until 2023.

There’s no reason to think free agents are eager to jump ship after this season, but the core itself got smaller last offseason due to requested trades. This time, veteran players don’t actually have to ask. And the unexpected retirement of Alyssa Mautz only underlined that players the Red Stars have relied on so heavily this season don’t have forever to spend in the trenches.

No matter what, the Red Stars are still alive, and will need to implement every lesson learned to make a push towards the final goal. Because if there’s anything we’ve learned about this team this season, it’s that they’re not just happy to show up: they want to win.

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