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With three losses in their last four games, the Red Stars are searching for quality in front of goal

Claire Watkins Avatar
August 17, 2022

The Red Stars lost their third match in four games on Sunday evening, falling to Angel City FC in the first-ever meeting between the two clubs.

The club was dealt more bad availability report news prior to kickoff, with Mallory Pugh out with knee inflammation, alongside a myriad of injuries and absences that have befallen the Red Stars. Chelsie Dawber is still out with a hamstring injury, Morgan Gautrat’s calf issue is still plaguing her, and while you eventually gloss over the season-ending injuries and returns from pregnancy, those absences have been reflected in the Red Stars losing steam.

Last week’s victory over a woeful Gotham team aside, Chicago has done just enough to remain competitive in the last month, with a new bashfulness in front of goal that sets the game state up to punish you. I’m reminded of the Red Stars we saw in the early months of 2021, when mistakes in the back killed the momentum and chances weren’t converting into goals.

Angel City’s lone goal came off another slip-up by the Red Stars three-back, which has been a recurring frustration in its own right in recent weeks. I praised Chicago’s positioning in last week’s article, and it was once again disciplined in Los Angeles, but errant passing in front of goal broke the game open. Not to say that Angel City didn’t create other chances, but the Red Stars’ ability to snuff those chances out rest on the ability to stay composed for 90 minutes.

What should be more concerning as the team awaits Pugh’s return is not that they are underperforming their attacking stats, it’s that they’re scoring at almost the exact same rate as the chances they’re creating. Chicago’s accumulated xG over 15 games is 20.89, while their xG against sits at 17.19. In reality, they’ve scored 22 goals and conceded 18, with a +4 goal differential that all but matches their xG-xgA of 3.69. So when the team struggles to put one away against San Diego despite being up a player, or fall to Angel City on the road, it’s not so much that they’ve been unlucky. It’s that they’re not generating enough opportunities to create their own luck.

Chicago’s attacking ills were in full force on Sunday, encapsulating a new shadow of disconnect that has hung over their midseason.

“We got a ball into dangerous spaces a little, like wide of the box, let’s say, but deep,” Chris Petrucelli said after the match. “And we could not connect, playing into the box or even as we dribbled into the box, and then tried to play the next pass, we just couldn’t connect.”

When asked about that lack of connectivity, and what it’s going to take to turn things around, Petrucelli emphasized quality over quantity. “We got the ball into the box, but wide, but we didn’t connect. The quality of the pass wasn’t great, and then when it was maybe the quality of the touch, the first touch wasn’t great. And then if that worked, the quality of the shot wasn’t great.”

Chicago started a number of young players again this week, but they’re also relying on that arc of development that seems to have hit something of a rut in recent weeks. Arin Wright has done a nice job calming the backline down, but she couldn’t influence the play in which Angel City scored on Sunday, and the team acknowledged what they give up by playing her at center-back by pushing her forward as they searched for an equalizer. Sarah Griffith came in as a late sub, when she appears primed for more responsibility. Ava Cook is still determining the right runs to make to be a distributive outlet in the attack, with Pugh on or off the pitch, and St-Georges is still looking for her touch back that she showcased early in the year.

The team was riding high after exceeding early expectations, but this influx point feels like another good example of how it’s still unclear what the team needs to get out of this season. The availability report has been brutal, in a way that raises eyebrows every week. The team has not been aggressive in the transfer market to actually shore up many of those absences, with the responsibility of figuring things out falling on the current group. That group works well within the system provided, but mental fatigue is a real element at this point in the year, and many players have not had to play this much in their professional careers.

At this point in the season, Petrucelli isn’t overemphasizing absences.

“We put 11 good players on the field today, and the expectations are the same for them,” he said. He’s right, and it’s an important ethos in the locker room. But Chicago’s reluctance in front of goal speaks perhaps to a run of results beginning to turn into a mental block, and they’re not going to have a ton of time to adjust before their next trip out of the city.

The Red Stars take on the North Carolina Courage on Saturday, August 20 at 6pm CT.

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