The National Women’s Soccer League began the 2021 season with a rematch between the two finalists from last season’s Challenge Cup between the Chicago Red Stars and the Houston Dash. After the game, I feel like there is some level of regret from commissioner Lisa Baird for having traveled to Houston instead of Portland for the second game of opening night. Chicago and Houston fought it out to a scoreless draw, with not much danger seen from either attack in all 90 minutes of the match. Let’s take a look at the match itself.
The biggest chance in the game came early for the Chicago Red Stars, with Kealia Watt playing a cross in for Kayla Sharples in the 18th minute. This was really the only shot that truly challenged Houston Dash goalkeeper Lindsey Harris, who saved it right on the line. For much of the first half, the Red Stars held most of the possession in Houston’s third of the pitch, but as the clock got past about the 30 minute mark, Houston began to push back. Around the 35th minute, Houston found a break through the Chicago defense, but Sarah Gorden sat an on-running Shea Groom right down in the box, possibly risking a penalty.
Chicago came right back out in the second half, with a 46th minute chance from Katie Johnson receiving the ball in the middle of the box with the keeper to beat. Unfortunately, Johnson was too off-balance to even attempt to get a shot off and Harris cleaned it up. The Red Stars would get another opportunity to take the lead in the 51st, with multiple chances in quick succession with the ball bouncing around in the box, but ultimately not even a shot would come out of the attack. Houston appeared to have broken the deadlock in the 57th minute with Veronica Latsko chipping the ball over Chicago’s Cassie Miller, but the play was called offside. The game would continue with the same cycle of attacks fizzling out before the ball even reached the box.
Here are three things we learned from the opening match of the NWSL Challenge Cup.
This is Just a Warm Up
This game was messy and we all knew that it would be messy. No one in the NWSL really had a full preseason and it showed with a lot of questionable plays from both sides in this match. Both the Chicago Red Stars and the Houston Dash were without some of their best players due to international call-ups, but that’s not really an excuse for the regular starters who looked just as rusty as the role players.
The one moment that could be pointed to as the peak of “Preseason-ness” came within the first 5 minutes when Morgan Gautrat ran into the referee at around midfield. This is the sort of rustiness that’s expected, but it’s still concerning to see when every game counts in this tournament. For two teams that want to prove something this season, this was not a good look for either of them.
What are Set Pieces?
Throughout the first half, the Chicago Red Stars drew a lot of fouls in the final third and were able to win a lot of corner kicks. They did not convert on a single one of these, nor does anyone really expect them to. See, the Red Stars aren’t exactly a team that does well on set pieces. There’s some theories, but it’s hard to know what it is.
Maybe it’s height, as the Chicago Red Stars are one of the shortest teams in the league, with the average height of the team hovering around 5’5″ or 5’6″. On the other hand, their tallest player, 5’11” Kayla Sharples, did start this game and there’s more to set pieces than height. Could it be the free kick taker, with Vanessa DiBernardo not quite placing the ball exactly where it needs to be?
I think that the answer lies somewhere in the middle of that, where the fault is really shared by the entire team. Not only is the team small, but they’re not aggressive enough in the air when on the attack, making it harder to really have a single player to aim a cross for. Speaking of being aggressive…
The Ghost of Sam Kerr
The Chicago Red Stars attack needs to step it up some time soon. There is still a general sense that mentioning the absence of former striker Sam Kerr is lazy, but here’s a quick thought experiment: What is Chicago’s biggest weakness? The team’s lack of scoring and a true goalscorer. How was that problem created? When Sam Kerr left and signed for Chelsea. How did they solve the problem last time they lost a major goalscorer? When Chicago lost Christen Press, it was done while they were trading for Sam Kerr. Sam Kerr is inextricably linked with the Red Stars’ inability to score because everything about the problem relates back to her and her absence.
How does this change? How do you get people like me to stop mentioning Sam Kerr? Well, someone needs to score goals. And it doesn’t look like anyone in the Chicago attack wants to score. There are a lot of good, possibly great, attackers on Chicago, but no strikers. Kealia Watt had multiple chances throughout the game where she could’ve done the selfish striker thing and take the shot, but she instead tried to pass the ball and hope her teammates could do something with it. She may be a good player and integral to a winning team, but there are too many players in this Chicago attack that are willing to pass up on scoring opportunities for the chance to be a “team player.”
When the defenders start looking more dangerous on the attack than the forwards, it’s time to start re-thinking how those forwards are playing the game.