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Chicago’s 4-2 win over the Orlando Pride on Sunday frequently felt like an exercise in identity. The team has been in a relatively steady holding pattern as they have awaited the return of Mallory Pugh to the team sheet, with a 1-2 record in all competitions without the striker. They’ve been competitive in every game they’ve played, but they haven’t always been able to execute the style they want to hone throughout the regular season.
To be fair to the Orlando Pride, they were coming off a huge midweek performance that got them a win against Challenge Cup winners North Carolina Courage, and they didn’t have the legs to push Chicago into making many turnovers. The Pride were forced to sit into a mid-block and pick their chances sparingly, and they made a good late push that forced the game into some theatrics at the very end of the match.
But the game also gave us a good look at what the Red Stars are trying to accomplish when their opponent is struggling to disrupt. They moved the ball with fluidity, connecting on over 85 percent of their passes. It gave the match a methodical feel, as Chicago tried to unlock Orlando’s defensive line of contention in order to generate goal-scoring chances. To be frank, it was the kind of match you don’t see a lot in the run-and-gun, transition-heavy NWSL.
With time on the ball, Chicago got one very good look in front of goal in the early going, and opened the scoring in the 11th minute. I think Zoe Morse has done a nice job filling in at defensive midfield alongside Danny Colaprico, but it’s also clear that her vision in distribution truly shines from a deeper position, as seen in the penetrating ball she sliced through the midfield to find Vanessa DiBernardo. DiBernardo then sent a good ball in to Sarah Griffith, who got the start in the attacking midfield, and the rookie hit it home from close range.
That goal is a good example of the team-wide cohesion that Chicago is looking for, and it’s also significant that Griffith finished it. The first half of the match saw a number of those same kind of good ideas that didn’t always quite land at the feet of the right finisher, and the Red Stars felt like they left too many chances on the board. “We had way many more chances than we usually have in the past,” Bianca St-Georges said after the match. “And I think younger people, we need to take pride, and show up and take responsibility to score more goals and not just rely on our normal goalscorers.”
While St-Georges is still looking at ways for the team to improve, the fourth-year wingback had another fantastic game, not only in the goal she scored from a tight angle in the second half but in her ability to switch the point of attack with ease. Rachel Hill lined up as St-Georges’s left wingback counterpart, and on multiple occasions the Canadian international saw the space Hill could run into and found her teammate in stride. It’s significant the Red Stars not only were providing the ball to each other’s feet, but that they were delivering the ball into space because they trusted that the right run was going to be made to meet it.
However, it is true that Chicago struggled to turn all of that good play into the ball hitting the back of the net until Pugh came on after halftime. Head coach Chris Petrucelli was intentional in noting that while the team took some time getting Pugh back into contact training after her concussion, the striker has been doing personal training for much of the last few weeks. You could tell, because she immediately made an impact after subbing on.
The Pride had been leaving acres of space that the Red Stars were struggling to exploit at the top of the box (I actually want to shout out Naperville legend Megan Montefusco in Orlando’s defensive midfield for being much of the force behind that). But Pugh began to shred their defensive integrity without seeming to hit much of a second gear. She assisted St-Georges’s strike while barely having to move after Orlando failed to close down, and her own tally she got off a bad giveaway as the Pride tried to play out of the back.
Then, as has been the story of the Red Stars’ season so far, the team had to make substitutes and the control over the match wavered. Danny Colaprico hit her 10,000 minute with the club in the second half, and she’s arguably playing some of the best soccer of her career. She’s currently second in the whole league in what American Soccer Analysis calls their expected passing model, meaning in general terms that when she distributes the ball the likelihood of passing success is incredibly high.
When she leaves matches, her absence is immediately felt. Chicago’s roster is also such that the end of games has less to do with changing the game state as it does getting young players more minutes, and resting veterans. Orlando simultaneously brought on Abi Kim who started getting space in 1v1 isolation against Tatumn Milazzo, while Sydney Leroux went to work on Amanda Kowalski, and the Pride’s intensity on the wings generated both of their late goals (though their first, scored by Amy Turner, was likely offside.) There’s not much of a better encapsulation of the team’s balance right now than USWNT veteran Alyssa Naeher bailing Kowalski (who has been good in her minutes thus far) out with a nice penalty save after the rookie made a mistake in the box.
Such is the Red Stars’ identity right now. They’ve been given the freedom to take big steps forward in their style of play and the ability to find one another in space. But it takes a few key pieces to make that style work, and their trajectory this season is going to hinge upon steady upward progress from the young players who are still getting used to the NWSL.
“Obviously, when Mal left, we had to find another identity for our team, because she’s a big part of the team, but having her back is really nice.” said St-Georges. “I feel like she helps us stay complete and more confident. But at the end of the day, we’re still trying to figure out our identity, and we still individually have to be better at just putting the ball [into the back of] the net.”
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