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Claire Watkins Avatar
May 3, 2022

This will be a season of change for the Red Stars, whether the organization is ready for it or not.

Following their third loss in a title game in as many years, scandal rocked the team in the offseason, including the quietly accepted resignation of long-time manager Rory Dames prior to allegations of emotional abuse both at the youth and professional being reported by the Washington Post. Following Dames’s departure, the team honored a number of trade requests, including that of long-time defensive stalwart Sarah Gorden, former captain Julie Ertz, and many important depth players like Katie Johnson and Nikki Stanton.

Not to say that the Red Stars don’t have some of the most dynamic players in the sport. Chicago came into 2022 with a squad of remaining veterans bolstered by draft picks and a few key acquisitions, bringing Yuki Nagasato back to the windy city and prepping for the eventual debut of Australian forward Chelsea Dawber. Alyssa Naeher has been excellent in her return from a knee injury suffered during last year’s Olympics, Tierna Davidson appears in all ways to be the heir-apparent to the center-back legacy with the USWNT, Mallory Pugh has been on a goal-scoring tear for both club and country, and Gautrat’s steady presence in the midfield worked her back into a national team conversation that had all but ended. 

Some of those bright spots have stayed in hibernation thus far; frankly, the Red Stars are currently missing a lot of key talent, and downplaying the situation doesn’t do the rest of the squad any favors. Casey Krueger and Sarah Woldmoe are both on maternity leave, Kealia Watt is still on her way back from an ACL tear in the 2021 playoffs, Davidson suffered a season-ending ACL tear mid-Challenge Cup, Gautrat has been dealing with a lingering calf issue for over a month, and Pugh has now missed two consecutive games with a concussion.

When your availability report absences could fill out a globally competitive five-a-side, things are understandably going to look a little bit different on the field. What the Red Stars have decided will see them through the year intact is to commit to a formation and a style that will allow those players to return as seamlessly as possible. The 2021 Red Stars were a very regimented group, playing like one firmly-flexed muscle as they thrived on influencing games without the ball. It was an occasionally dull style of play that saw games swing on the smallest of margins, but by the end of the season they found themselves to be very adept at grinding out results.

In 2022, new manager Chris Petrucelli’s professed preferred style is light years away from the tactics that saw Chicago hold on all the way to the championship game last year. They want to possess, aided by additional numbers in the midfield, and break lines of disruption with a free-flowing passing structure. They’ve committed to a three-back defense, with two wingbacks pushed up to get numbers forward in transition, while retaining the ability to slot into a five-back should they get pinned back by their opponent. If you froze the midfield formation at kickoff, you’d see a hexagon; two No. 10’s and two No. 6’s create a box inner midfield, with the wingbacks on either side to provide width. A lone striker sits atop the formation, though the fluidity of the concept allows for help from either wing at any time.

As one can imagine, with a radically new system and many players getting their first serious professional minutes, the Red Stars have had moments where they look perfectly in tune with one another and moments where they look like they met for the first time that morning. Gautrat and Davidson provided much of the distribution in Chicago last year, and Gautrat’s return will be key to Chicago’s ability to retain the ball. Their style also encourages other teams to press, and they’re still working out how to unlock that pressure without turning the ball over or having to scramble on the wings (in their recent win against Racing Louisville they defended over 40 crosses). 

But just like last year, the Red Stars are ready to step up. Rather than getting to partner with Davidson, fourth-year center-back Kayla Sharples has had a huge amount of responsibility placed on her shoulders to keep the three-back organized, and she’s done very well. Zoe Morse has been a Swiss Army knife, playing both as a left-center-back and stepping into a defensive midfield partnership with Danny Colaprico. Colaprico has been tremendous as the veteran No.  6, and team captain Vanessa DiBernardo has done a good job being whatever she’s asked to be within that central midfield channel.

The veteran energy on the squad has been good, and the younger players on the team are feeding off of it. “Losing the players we’ve lost, it’s been big,” Ella Stevens said after the team’s regular-season opener. “It’s, ‘how are we going to fill those spots?’ But I think we’re trying to figure out ‘okay, how can we do it together.’” Naeher also liked what she’s seen from the rookies, though everyone acknowledges that the team has got a ways to go. “It’s a little bit of baptism by fire in a lot of ways,” she said. “I think they’ve all stepped in, they’ve done well.”

The Red Stars weren’t at their best in their opening matchup against Racing Louisville, but they still got the win 2-1, and that’s important too. There’s still a DNA within the player pool that will do everything it can to bend and not break, even when things aren’t working perfectly.

The CHGO Red Stars adventure begins today

So here’s to a new journey of self-discovery in Bridgeview, and I’m excited to see where things go. Let Sandra Herrera and I be your guides as we chat all things Red Stars live on YouTube at 1pm on Fridays, and expect more in-depth written content from me weekly. It’s all the coverage you know us for in NWSL, but with a newly refreshed Chicago focus that you can’t get anywhere else. It’s $8.99 for a monthly subscription, or consider the $59.98 yearly subscription that gets you access to everything, plus a free CHGO Red Stars T-shirt. There’s also a deal where you can sign up for a new PointsBet account, and get a year’s subscription for free. You’ll also get all of CHGO’s coverage, including Chicago Sky (Sky in four, babes), Bulls, Bears, White Sox, Cubs, Blackhawks, and Fire.

Here’s to another year of Chicago soccer, in a pivotal Year 10 for the league. Let’s show ‘em what we’re made of.

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