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It’s no secret the Red Stars have had to battle after the 60th minute at times this season. In the Challenge Cup, games would break down as the team rotated substitutes into matches and the squad hit a hard fitness limit. More recently, lapses in focus during set piece opportunities has plagued the team, costing them two points against the Washington Spirit last Wednesday, in the first of two midweek matches against the 2021 NWSL Champions.
The Red Stars will play Washington again this week, this time at home, and one could be forgiven if the second half of Wednesday’s game is circled in red pen as a danger zone for the whole squad. Chicago has played three games in the last week, with two more to go before they return back to a weekly matchday schedule. This section of the season has been tough, but the team has also found a way to make it this far in the 14-day stretch without losing a match.
The most promising performance the Red Stars have pulled together this season actually came when the team was at its most tired, in a somewhat surprising 1-0 win over OL Reign on Saturday. With only two days between their matchup with the Spirit and the beginning of their three-game homestand, Chicago had to rely on tired legs and a healthy amount of rotation. Sarah Luebbert and Jill Aguilera lined up as the team’s wingbacks, as the absences of Arin Wright and Bianca St-Georges, in addition to short rest, dictated that Rachel Hill and Alyssa Mautz couldn’t carry the load alone. Aguilera was tasked with keeping tabs on former Red Star Sofia Huerta, who had been an important generator of the Reign’s attack in recent weeks.
Getting through a series of games in quick succession like Chicago has requires a certain amount of pinpoint accuracy in how many players get minutes where, and concessions made on Wednesday benefitted the team on the weekend. As I’ve mentioned a couple of times already this season, Danny Colaprico and Vanessa DiBernardo have been the most reliable defensive midfield duo available to the Red Stars thus far this season, and both split 45 minute performances in D.C. On Saturday, they went the distance, holding the midfield down against the likes of Rose Lavelle for the entirety of regulation.
“Those guys are good,” head coach Chris Petrucelli said after the match, “They can run forever, they tackle, but they’re good with the ball as well. That’s what I like best about them, because we can play through them and keep the ball.”
It’s true that DiBernardo and Colaprico have been willing to put the miles in for the team this year, and Petrucelli said he was happy to see them make it through the whole game, but they also give Chicago the option to pass around their opponent’s press. After another fantastic goal by Mallory Pugh had given the Red Stars a slim lead on Saturday, that same concern settled in that the rest of the game was going to be a battle that Chicago’s legs wouldn’t be able to withstand. OL Reign is a punishing team to play against; they win the ball well, they’re very good at strategic physicality, and they were pressing for an equalizer.
But instead of Chicago falling into a five-back and daring the Reign to take their chances, the Red Stars worked the system to their advantage. Multiple times as the game progressed, DiBernardo or Colaprico would be set upon by three Reign players in possession. Instead of forcing a dribble or a forward pass, both midfielders deftly turned and found the right outlet to keep the ball moving and the home side firmly in control. Aguilera kept up with Huerta for 75 solid minutes, and even pushed forward with Luebbert enough to force the Reign defense to stay honest as they tried to force a high line. Pugh advanced the ball on the dribble with ease, and took one for the team (more often than she would have likely preferred), suffering tackles that slowed the game down and kept the Reign out of possession.
It’s also significant that in the three games played in this stretch, the personnel of the three-back defense has remained the same, and they’re beginning to gel. Zoe Morse and Tatumn Milazzo have developed enough comfort with their roles that they are not only moving in their own spaces well, but they can communicate forward when a more green wingback needs to stay home and when they should push forward in transition. They, alongside Kayla Sharples, seem to be taking direction well from Alyssa Naeher, and the team presented a preference for playing out of the back while still making good decisions when they saw a possible counter-attacking opportunity.
If none of this sounds all that exciting, it would accurately reflect many of the stretches of play on Saturday. But it also shows how Chicago was able to see the game out without completely running out of gas once they had the lead.
“We’ve got to give a lot of credit to the three in the back and Alyssa, I mean they’ve played every minute through this stretch and they really haven’t given up much,” Petrucelli said.
The Red Stars’ passing map made up in organization what it lacked in creative freedom, with the wingbacks taking a more defensive line while providing outlet options from the midfield. And if you have to get into a close one while preserving a clean sheet, it helps to have arguably the most in-form striker in the league at your disposal.
“I just thought we were gritty and determined and fatigued. I thought the first half we were running in mud,” Petrucelli said. “… it was never going to be pretty. But you know, the whole thing was trying to find a way to get a goal and protect it as much as you can. And fortunately, it worked out for us.”
The Red Stars don’t have much time to rest on their accomplishments, as they take on the Spirit on Wednesday, followed by a match against the Orlando Pride on Saturday, June 12. It takes a lot to get these kinds of games right, and Chicago — despite their youth — haven’t looked shaken by the responsibility yet.
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