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We’re again at a break in the NWSL schedule, this time for the union-mandated seven-day break for all contracted league players. Prior to this weekend’s dark period, the Red Stars had their bell rung a little bit, falling 4-1 to Houston in their worst loss of the season so far.
The Red Stars still currently sit in third, and have already built such a strong early season record that it would take a much larger collapse than anticipated for them to slip out of playoff position, but I also think the job gets harder from here. After a radical formation and personnel shift in the off-season, Chicago’s last two opponents have taken nuanced approaches against the Red Stars, and it’s begun to work against this young squad.
They’ll get an infusion of leadership as Alyssa Naeher, Mal Pugh, and Bianca St-Georges make their returns from the Concacaf W championship, but other teams have made more aggressive moves during this particular trade window to look dangerous for a playoff push. With the understanding that Chicago is likely going with what they have, let’s take a look at what to lean into, and what to tweak.
First, let’s take a look at Chicago’s top performers in goals added, a metric that highlights the strengths and weaknesses of a player when taking actions that add the likelihood of chances at the attacking end. We all know that Mal Pugh is one of the more dynamic players in the entire NWSL, but where she particularly shines the most is on the dribble. Pugh’s passes don’t always connect, which is as much about being on the same page as her teammates as her own accuracy. But she’s by far the best dribbler in the league, which becomes clear both when you see her on the field and when you look at her numbers.
So, we know that when Pugh picks up the ball at the halfway line, other teams have to start scrambling, but that was probably obvious. So what else is happening for the Red Stars in transition? Are the Red Stars this year really the Mallory Pugh show, and only able to go as far as she carries them?
As we saw in Chicago’s 1-1-1 record during the Concacaf W championship, the answer is definitely not a yes but also not completely a no. Bianca St-George is still second in the team in goals added, specifically in her ability to get on the end of her teammates’ passes, which as we’ve seen with Pugh’s connection rate can be something the Red Stars occasionally struggle with. There’s a level of calm that comes with the knowledge that a hopeful ball sent out wide is going to have a wingback finding the right touch on the end of it, and that’s the kind of edge St-George brings to the Red Stars attack.
That Chicago’s two most positive field players in +/- effectiveness are the two that were called into international duty for the Concacaf W championship shouldn’t surprise anyone, nor should the fact that Ava Cook rounds out the top three. Cook also excels at receiving the ball in space, turning and shooting—an obvious skill for a No. 9, but one that I believe will prove to be more crucial for the Red Stars as the season goes on. Following Cook are wingbacks Rachel Hill and Sarah Luebbert, which positionally also makes the most sense, but doesn’t necessarily back up Chicago’s mantra that their midfield is their strength.
Ella Stevens has done a nice job when called upon to be more of a connective outlet for the team, but she told the media that she’s still learning the small movements and angles that make up effective central forward play. Stevens specifically credited Cook’s natural movements while receiving service as ones she wants to emulate, and while Cook has been a good substitute in recent matches, one has to wonder if it’s not worth a look at her and Stevens on the field together in different roles.
The Red Stars have been playing out of their box midfield with success so far this season, but it’s required a stretching of roles that feels less sustainable as other teams rise to the heights of their powers as we hit the home stretch. Vanessa DiBernardo has never had a game without nice moments on both sides of the ball, and Danny Colaprico is a steady veteran presence both when paired with DiBernardo or with Yuki Nagasato, but there are going to be diminishing returns from those efforts as teams figure Chicago out. As we saw in last weekend’s game against Houston, when the sharpness isn’t there the team becomes very vulnerable to quick counter attacks, and the Red Stars’ opponents are beginning to force the issue.
Ironically, Morgan Gautrat’s total of 83 minutes so far in 2022 stands out as one of the more clinical performances in the midfield, which again throws into perspective just how stretched those central roles have become in order to make up for her absence. We don’t know if Gautrat will truly make a comeback at any point this season (the club keeps pushing her return time back by four-week intervals every time they are asked), and it seems like Chicago’s answer has been for the current veterans to cover more ground to keep the ship afloat alongside very young teammates.
Working on an ever-shrinking roster in recent weeks, some of those cracks have begun to show, and it has infringed on Chicago’s ability to both retain the ball and advance it. DiBernardo’s conversion to defensive midfielder is heroic, but the amount of field she’s been asked to cover to also generate attack will eventually come at a price down the stretch. Nagasato has also struggled physically at times this season, to the point where she actually has the lowest +/- on the entire team in goals added. In negating the team’s weaknesses, they’ve actually begun to impede their own strengths, and when the intensity ratchets up and teams start playing every game like a knockout the Red Stars will once again have to adjust.
The good news is I don’t think white-knuckling through a war of attrition has to be written in stone for the team, even if they run the rest of the table with only the players they currently have available. If Colaprico and DiBernardo are the better defensive midfield duo, keep them there for the rest of the season. Give Nagasato a break and keep her for game states where you need to hold onto a lead and slow the game down. Start two of Pugh, Griffith, or Sarah Luebbert (if she’s not needed at wingback) as your No. 10’s. Invest in Cook as the lone No. 9 as long as she stays fit, and consider Stevens’s strengths as a connector when deciding which attacking midfielders she fits best with—probably your dribblers, rather than your passers.
There is enough attacking talent on the Red Stars roster that sacrificing the spine of the defense shouldn’t be necessary, and the three-back is going to need more support in front of them to make it through the next stretch of games. The rotation we’ve seen has been both fun and necessary as Chicago has figured out their identity, but it’s time to sharpen the team from a blunt force object into a blade.
Because what comes with winning is a small side sampling of expectations, and the Red Stars have earned that as we get closer to the postseason. They’ll take on the league-leading Wave next week at Soldier Field, and what an opportunity for a statement win that would be.
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