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The Red Stars have entered into a fast and furious stretch of their early season, as their rescheduled match against the Washington Spirit sets the team up for five games in the period of 14 days.
The games themselves are all tough: The Portland Thorns and OL Reign are formidable opponents, they have two games against 2021 NWSL champions Washington Spirit, and then cap the stint off with their second match against the Orlando Pride. They’re off to a good start, with a draw against the Thorns on Saturday that saw the team take a number of important steps forward as a unit.
A theme this season already lies in Chicago’s well-known playmakers stepping up and also seeing steady progress from the youngest members of the game-day 18.
Saturday’s draw saw both. A benefit of having a player like Mallory Pugh on your team means that even if your system is slightly methodical, there’s never any accounting for a striker making a goal out of nothing.
Pugh did just that in the fifth minute, after collecting a pass from Ava Cook. When Pugh goes into 1v1 battles on the ball, it’s increasingly unlikely that her defensive counterpart is going to be able to make an interception that won’t result in a foul. Portland’s Kelli Hubly had no choice but to try to push the angle on Pugh pace for pace, which Pugh adjusted to all too easily to put the Red Stars ahead.
But despite Portland’s new lineup and leadership, the Thorns are the Thorns, and Hina Sugita equalized almost immediately on a nice shot from a tight angle. It’s hard to tell if the Red Stars fell foul of the “danger zone” philosophy, wherein the most dangerous moments to concede come immediately after stoppages of play (in this case, Pugh’s goal), but Sugita had space and time in the box that Chicago did not really concede in the run of play again.
As anticipated, the midfields mostly canceled each other out, though Portland’s line of contention sat slightly further up the pitch than Chicago’s. The two No. 10s—Pugh and Nagasato—weren’t relied upon significantly for defensive duties in the box midfield system, though Pugh has the capability to drop back to help the team defensively if necessary. That leaves the duo of Vanessa DiBernardo and Danny Colaprico to hold court in a No. 6 partnership, and they’re increasingly doing a nice job.
Colaprico is in fine form as a disruptor, with a clear role in blowing up play and winning the ball, but she also hasn’t lost much in the way of her on the ball capabilities. Her passing has also been exceptional, averaging an impressive 80 percent passing accuracy when passing into the opposition’s half, and 86 percent accuracy overall. DiBernardo, not one to bring an overly physical presence, is another distributor, setting the tempo and sending the ball forward whenever possible.
A common mistake in passing stats interpretation involves removing the context of where a player is actually passing to. Lateral and backward passes are obviously going to show a higher completion rate due to a general lack of defensive actions against them. The other team is going to be happy to direct midfielders towards passes in low-danger areas. But Colaprico and DiBernardo are almost always passing in front of them, and they are clearly finding the wingers and the No. 10s making the right runs.
The mistakes tend to appear perhaps one step after the pass from the defensive midfield area, when a heavy touch or passes made just a little too quickly led to turnovers as the first half progressed, which put the defense under unnecessary pressure. The three-back of Morse, Sharples, and Milazzo had their best match of the season despite the two goals conceded, not least in just how clean they played even when a player as dangerous as Sophia Smith got in between the lines.
“As a backline, the past couple of games and this last week of practice, we’ve been talking about just focusing on those details and like those small things,” Sharples said after the match. “In the grand scheme of things in playing the games we’ve been decent, but there’s things that we can clean up.”
Ava Cook would notch her second assist of the night before halftime, finished by Rachel Hill (who had another very active evening filling in at wingback in both the left and right channels). But while Chicago didn’t present many holes in the defense in either possession or transition, they struggled again with set-piece defending, conceding their third goal off a dead ball play in as many games. Just after the second half kicked off, a number of Red Stars failed to clear the ball after a Portland corner kick, allowing Smith to just flick the ball up and shoot from very close range.
“It’s quite frustrating,” Sharples said, “constantly giving up set piece goals.”
It also would prove the difference-maker, as the team did a nice job seeing the rest of the game out while committing to their usual substitute rotation. Portland put a number of veterans on to chase all three points, but Chicago’s rookies held firm to end the match 2-2.
While a number of decisions are going to be made with a midweek game against the Washington Spirit, followed by three matches next week, the Red Stars approached the game against Portland like any other game. “With this one, we had a full week to play it the way we wanted to play it,” head coach Chris Petrucelli said. “And we also have a full four days before before the next one. So I think that’s right on the edge of enough time.”
While the coaching staff will be focused on making sure no player ends up with too many minutes in consecutive matches, the mindset going in is pretty clear: win the day in front of you, and then move on.
“Not only do we have a lot of games, they’re good teams. We’re talking about some of the better teams in the league,” Petrucelli said. “I think it’s really a difficult schedule. But first of all, we have to play the games by themselves— it’s one game. We’ve got to go into each game trying to win one game, not worrying about what’s next and what happened before.”
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