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As you all might have noticed, the Chicago Red Stars did not play an NWSL game against the Washington Spirit this weekend. They shared their absence from the gameday slate with the Portland Thorns, who also had their game against the North Carolina Courage rescheduled due to the 2022 Challenge Cup final.
The Red Stars’ match against the Spirit has been rescheduled for June 8, which has both positives and negatives. An obvious negative is the potential loss of whatever the gate might have been on Saturday, the first nice weather night Chicago would have been the beneficiary of this year.
Whether those fans follow the team to a midweek rescheduled game in June remains to be seen.
In terms of the product on the pitch, there’s also no escaping just how daunting a 12-day stretch the Red Stars are in for from June 1 to June 12. They play away in D.C. on the first of the month (fortunately at Audi Field, and not the punishing turf of Segra Field.) They then come home to play three games in quick succession: they host OL Reign on June 4, have a rematch against Washington on June 8, and then close the week out June 12 against the Orlando Pride.
While a homestand is welcome, four games in 12 days is something of a disaster outside of the Red Stars’ making; at least the Spirit were paid $5,000 each in their losing effort in the Cup final, though they might be rueing the opportunity after that game dissolved into a physical slugfest. The Red Stars will have to plan for heavy rotation, and probably a little bit of luck. However, putting the pain of the rescheduled match a little further into the future might be useful for the Red Stars in the present.
The team’s struggles with absences are well-known at this point, but the cavalry might be coming. It’s unclear what has held up the debut of Australian international Chelsie Dawber, though upon her signing the team did say that her arrival is dependent on visa approval. This likely takes the timeline of when fans will see Dawber up top for the Red Stars out of the team’s hands. Once she arrives, fans should be looking forward to her adjustment to the American game. The 22-year-old scored almost a third of Adelaide United’s goals this past A-league W season. She tallied 10 of the club’s 33 goals alongside three assists.
Similarly up in the air is the return of Sarah Luebbert, after Club America crashed out of the Liga MX Femenil Clausura Quarterfinals against Pachuca (after the match America head coach Craig Harrington, who Chicago fans might remember, was promptly fired.) Luebbert earned a contract with Chicago in 2020 after joining preseason as a non-roster invitee. She had promising moments for the Red Stars in the 2020 Fall Series, and went down to Mexico City on loan in August of 2021. She’s flourished in Liga MX Femenil, quickly becoming a fan favorite and a consistent contributor for a team that was stacked on talent and struggled to put it all together under their current leadership.
Luebbert extended her stay in Mexico City in early 2022, opening up questions as to where she sees herself playing for the next year. The Red Stars told me in preseason they expect her back in camp upon the end of her loan term, but one has to imagine that if her wishes lay elsewhere, she’d have the financial backing to come to appropriate terms with her NWSL club. Circumstances in Chicago have also obviously shifted quite a bit since she left; the Red Stars have a new coach, a new style of play, and a much thinner roster on their front line. If Luebbert wants an opportunity for significant playing time back in the U.S., this would appear to be a good situation to walk back into; the team needs her.
Outside of a few moving pieces in acquisitions, any more time to get Mallory Pugh and Morgan Gautrat healthy again will also be important for this early segment of the NWSL season. Pugh and Gautrat’s contributions to the squad are obvious, but there’s also a natural strain on other members of the team when they aren’t on the field. Chicago’s ability to possess in the midfield is limited by Gautrat’s absence, forcing veterans like Danny Colaprico and Vanessa Dibernardo to cover immense amounts of ground. Pugh herself is a drifter, and without her underrated defensive workrate the Red Stars’ new lean defensive shape in the back has been put under more consistent pressure.
Their next game is their first-ever against the San Diego Wave, who are coming off the biggest win in the club’s short history, a 4-0 drubbing of Gotham FC. Chicago has gotten a chance to ease into their season in defense, but they haven’t faced anything quite like Alex Morgan off a career performance yet in 2022. If they can use fresh legs to press the San Diego defense, the Wave have shown they can be rattled into mistakes. The Red Stars’ preferred style of play actually should unlock the San Diego midfield if they execute well, but they aren’t going to want to give the Wave frontline as much time on the ball as they gave Louisville in their season debut.
So in the short run, the team might ultimately look at the weekend off as a blessing, and June as a challenge. Chicago’s trajectory in 2022 is going to take some time, so all the better to take on the first month of the season with rejuvenated energy, and let the rest of the summer fall as it may.
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