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Red Stars show 'next player up' mentality in loss to San Diego

Claire Watkins Avatar
May 17, 2022

Looking at the circumstances the Red Stars faced going into Sunday’s matchup against the San Diego Wave, one might be forgiven for somewhat lowered expectations. The team itself didn’t give up much by way of excuses after falling 2-1 to the expansion side, but the undercurrent of who made the trip did set the tone from the first whistle.

Given the availability report, one might also be forgiven for wondering what sort of curse the Red Stars have fallen under. Instead of getting players back into the fold after an unexpected weekend off, the list of absences grew, with Ella Stevens joining Mallory Pugh and Morgan Gautrat as out in the short term. Alyssa Naeher, Danny Colaprico, Arin Wright, and Vanessa DiBernardo were all listed as questionable, which likely informed the game-day decision to have Colaprico and Wright on the bench.

“That availability report was a pretty good team, was a good XI,” head coach Chris Petrucelli said after the match. “I guess our mindset, [that] I talked to them about: anybody that wears the jersey, we’re still the Red Stars, we’re still trying to win the game.” True rookies Amanda Kowalski and Ava Cook started in the defense and attack, respectively, and Zoe Morse got another look in the defensive midfield alongside DiBernardo.

The Red Stars competed throughout the first half of the match, going toe to toe with San Diego’s forward line that did find space on the wings as expected. When Chicago comes out in that dedicated three-back, every run up the wing by players like Bianca St. Georges and (in Sunday’s case) Alyssa Mautz comes at a positional price, which left Tatumn Milazzo, Kayla Sharples, and Kowalski defending in isolation more than felt sustainable to keep a clean sheet.

However, the defense did good things to hold their line for the first 56 minutes of the game, and they felt at halftime like they had a chance to come out of the game with all three points. “At halftime, I thought we were all going in like, we can actually win this game, which was good to see,” Mautz said in post-game availability. “No one was struggling or, like hopes were down. I thought we were all staying positive.”

Ten minutes into the second half, I’m reluctant to blame Kayla Sharples for the mist-timed tackle on Sofia Jakobsson that gave Alex Morgan her third penalty opportunity in two matches. It’s easy to focus on defensive mistakes when they happen, but the bigger issue Chicago faced stemmed from giving the ball away too easily further up the pitch. The Red Stars finished the match with 67.1 percent passing accuracy, a far cry from the 80+ percent they were averaging during their more complete Challenge Cup performances.

The Wave are also very good at getting the ball to their incredibly dangerous front-line quickly. 

“A lot of their chances came from us passing them the ball, and with them, if you pass them the ball, the next ball is going behind you,” Petrucelli said. “We have to be better at keeping the ball, and that’s no matter who is on the field.”

Chicago’s second goal conceded felt a bit like clearance-fatigue, after a blown defensive assignment left San Diego defender Kaleigh Riehl all alone in the box at the end of a free kick sequence. That mistake proved even more frustrating when Ava Cook immediately got a goal back for her first NWSL tally. Jill Aguilera also showed both why she has been one of the preferred rookies off the bench (and that her strengths still lie in the moments she’s focused on getting closer to goal), with a tight angle barely calling an equalizer offside.

In competitive tenacity, the Red Stars likely deserved to get out of the match with a point, even if it would have been earned on defensive intensity rather than the free-flowing football they want to eventually play. The team considered briefly abandoning the three-back system that they’ve used in every game this system, but with the players available to them they stuck with the process, and trust that the results will follow.

Therein lies the positives in a loss like this one. Five rookies got minutes, and Cook joined Stevens in young players contributing to goal-scoring with Pugh temporarily unavailable. “A lot of us knew that people were going to be playing minutes that haven’t gotten a lot maybe, or vice versa. So it was really nice to see everyone step up and have that grittiness,” Cook said after the match. There are hopes that Pugh might clear concussion protocol for next week’s match, and the infusion of talent that Sarah Luebbert and Chelsie Dawber will bring to the side will hopefully give the Red Stars more options and a bit of a clearer approach.

Petrucelli agreed. “Amanda is matched up against Alex Morgan, my guess is that Amanda has got an Alex Morgan poster on the wall somewhere. Ava, obviously [got] the first goal, but she was dangerous the whole game. And we got a real spark from Jill [Aguilera] and Sarah [Griffith], and Sammi [Fisher] towards the end of the game. So I was really proud of what the young guys did.”

And for Mautz, who has been with the Red Stars as part of every iteration of the club in the NWSL’s ten years of operation, it still all comes down to wanting to win. “It definitely was a learning experience, but it still hurt,” she said. “We were in this game. And I think for me, it hurts more just how close we were.”

The Red Stars will look to bounce back on the second game of their road trip, taking on the Orlando Pride on May 22 at 5 pm CT

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