The Chicago Red Stars took care of business against Sky Blue FC
The dominant Chicago Red Stars seem to be back. With a 4-1 victory over Sky Blue FC, the Red Stars played like the team that they’ve been over the past couple of seasons. Maybe a bit of this victory can be attributed to the interesting decision from Sky Blue to rest top goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan, but that doesn’t account for the continued development of Chicago’s impressive counter-attack. But first, let’s look at what happened in the first soccer game at SeatGeek Stadium in 11 months.
The game started with Sky Blue FC in a very dangerous position. In the 5th minute, Ifeoma Onumonu made an impressive back-heel flick into the net that was called back for offside. Those style points seemed to have meant something to the soccer gods as only a minute later she picked up the first goal in the game off of a rare spill from Alyssa Naeher to put Sky Blue ahead.
But that lead would only stand for too long as Kealia Watt broke free into the box on her own in the 10th minute to give the game an equalizer. Things then seemed to start breaking towards the Chicago Red Stars. In the 23rd minute, Zoey Goralski seems to be fouled in the box by Sky Blue keeper Didi Haracic, but Goralski’s chip over seemed to keep the play going.
Once again it seemed like the soccer gods intervened, giving another long ball to Goralski in the 28th minute, who successfully chipped it past Haracic this time and walked it in to give Chicago the lead. The half ended with a third goal for the Red Stars, this time when Watt played the ball central to the top of the box where Vanessa DiBernardo gives a classic look by finessing it home.
Sky Blue FC decided that immediate change was needed going into the second half, removing Haracic from the pitch and placing Kailen Sheridan in goal for the rest of the game. This didn’t stop the Chicago Red Stars from getting at least one more crack at net in the 57th. Sarah Luebbert played a brilliant through ball to Watt who once again rushes into the box to place the ball in behind the keeper.
The rest of the game was mostly a continuation of Sky Blue’s first-half attacks continuing to just barely get fought off by Naeher and the Chicago defense. Of note was an injury in the 67th minute to Morgan Gautrat which looked to be non-contact. She came off under her own power, but we’ll see how it develops.
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Here’s what we learned from this unexpected blowout:
Witness The Quickness of the Chicago Red Stars
Going into the Fall Series, there were so many questions around the Chicago Red Stars’ offense. Yes, they’d lost their best goalscorer in Sam Kerr‘s transfer to Chelsea, but they still had so many amazing attackers on the team who were just not getting anything done in the Challenge Cup.
After two games with this bare-bones roster, fans should be feeling a lot better. Not only have they scored five goals over two games, but they’ve looked extremely dangerous all throughout. What changed?
Last season the Chicago Red Stars of course focused their attack on Sam Kerr, pounding the ball forward and just letting her run onto it. But they also utilized help from Yuki Nagasato and Arin Wright out on the wings. So when they went into the Challenge Cup, the team needed to re-make themselves without two of those key players, as well as with the remaining one of those three struggling with an injury. Coach Rory Dames decided to try a different tactical set-up to build into attacks, but those attacks seemed to just go nowhere.
There was one bit that worked though. Bianca St. George’s quick counterattacks. So when they started the season again the Chicago Red Stars doubled down on that counterattacking strategy. This was so clear on display and was a joy to watch. They pressed hard into the Sky Blue defense as well as moved quickly to get the ball forward. The speed in the team’s attack is clearly utilized in this style of play with Kealia Watt showing off two goals in this match, as well as Zoey Goralski’s multiple dashes up the pitch.
A goalkeeper substitution mid-game almost only ever comes from an injury or ejection. Maybe it’s pre-season and the coach wants to give the backup a runout. I don’t think that this was the case. To put it bluntly, Didi Haracic was pulled from the game for just not playing well. It’s a rough thing to say, but looking at the film it’s true. In Zoey Goralski’s goal as well as the close call minutes earlier, Haracic came way too far off of her line. She reacted too late to DiBernardo’s goal.
But it’s not like Haracic was the starter losing her job to a backup. She was the backup. Sky Blue FC seemed to be planning to let star goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan get a game of rest today, but after giving up three goals in the first half it was more than coach Freya Coombe was willing to take. Haracic shouldn’t even feel too bad about giving up the goal to Kaelia Watt, as the normally unwavering Sheridan would also let by a similar shot to Watt in the second half.
The NWSL has a massive wealth of goalkeeping talent. So much that most teams could probably feel safe with their third-string goalkeeper starting a game or two. But sometimes things don’t work out and Sky Blue needed to accommodate for that.
Speaking of the general NWSL climate, it’s amazing how much parity there is in the league right now. Two years ago, Sky Blue FC wouldn’t have stood a chance at getting even a point out of the Chicago Red Stars. Now, they went into this game with a major chance and despite being handled fairly easily, on a whole they’ve risen quite a lot and have the same record as the Red Stars. Same with Challenge Cup winners Houston Dash and the Orlando Pride, who were able to pull off a scoreless draw against the North Carolina Courage the other day.
It’s disappointing that many of these teams are going to be torn up somewhat by expansion since it feels like the league has finally reached a place of equilibrium. Any team in the NWSL could probably beat any other team in the NWSL on any given day. Kind of a beautiful thought and a wonderful way to run a sports league.