Just when you thought the NWSL season was over, it’s actually just beginning! The Chicago Red Stars will open the 2021 NWSL Regular Season on the West Coast against the defending NWSL Challenge Cup champion Portland Thorns. The two teams couldn’t have finished the Challenge Cup in a more different way, but they will see if anything carries over from the preseason competition.
One thing that will carry over from the preseason competition is suspensions, which Morgan Gautrat will have to serve after the NWSL Disciplinary Committee reviewed a tackle she made in the OL Reign match. In terms of injuries, both teams appear to be clear, with the lone exception of Emily Boyd’s continued recovery from a long-term injury she picked up in the off-season.
Here are three things to know going into the first game of the 2021 NWSL Regular Season:
Setting the Tone
The biggest refrain in this week’s press conference for the Chicago Red Stars was “setting the tone.” There’s still a big vacuum in Chicago’s lineup that needs to be filled by someone and if there was ever a game for someone to step up an score, the first game of the season against the current cup-holders seems like the game to do it. With apparently a full line-up returning, this will be the game to watch out for with what the team will do from here on out.
While the Chicago Red Stars have built a great team over the past five years or so through sheer determination and sticking with their best players, the rest of the league has changed its form quite a bit. This season will be a major test for the system that they’ve committed to since joining the NWSL, as the rest of the league has taken a huge step up in quality from previous seasons.
Will the Red Stars be able to face the challenge of an overpowered NWSL?
Stacked to the Rafters
Speaking of being overpowered, the Portland Thorns have so much talent on their team. There have been a few teams in the past in the NWSL where you could say that their bench could probably win games for them and Portland is that team this year. With a starting lineup already boasting some of the best talent in the world in Crystal Dunn, Christine Sinclair, and Becky Sauerbrunn, there’s not even enough room to fit Challenge Cup standouts Morgan Weaver and Raquel Rodriguez.
Portland is a top club in the NWSL, which makes them a top club in the world. That is what the Chicago Red Stars will be going up against on Sunday and it is honestly a bit terrifying. But on the bright side, the Red Stars have played this team many times in the past. They know how coach Mark Parsons likes to play and they will be prepared. However, the Thorns have always been Chicago’s kryptonite, with Chicago having only won a single game out of their 23 past meetings.
In a story that’s bigger than just this one game, the Chicago Red Stars appear to still be gearing up for a major signing from Europe. Using the criteria of still having games left to play, I’ve put together a list of possible strikers that coach Rory Dames might be trying to catch. To be honest, there’s some pipe dreams on this list. Sam Kerr’s Chelsea still has yet to play the Champions’ League final, so she technically fits onto this list. There’s also her Chelsea teammate Pernille Harder and opponent on Barcelona, Lieke Martens. The Michael Jordan comparisons would be made even more fitting if Kerr returns and I have always wanted Martens in Chicago, but these are incredibly unlikely signings.
There are two other possible signings, one only slightly more realistic than signing Martens, and the other much more grounded in reality. First, Marie-Antoinette Katoto and Paris-Saint Germain still have a single game left to play in the season. In just four professional seasons, Katoto has only spent a single one without hitting 20 goals. Unfortunately, it’s not likely that PSG will let her go without a major fight. The other, more realistic answer is Penn State graduate Laura Freigang of Eintracht Frankfurt, who will be playing in the DFB-Pokal Frauen at the end of the month. Not only does Freigang have that NWSL connection with 37 appearances for the Nittany Lions, she scored 15 goals this past season. So that would not be a bad pick-up for a Red Stars team in need of scoring.
But in the end, we’ll just have to wait and see what happens. There’s other possibilities like Barcelona’s Asisat Oshoala, Wolfsburg’s Ewa Pajor, and Chelsea’s Beth England; but by this time next month there will be a new striker in Chicago.
Chicago Red Stars (4-3-3): Alyssa Naeher; Bianca St Georges, Sarah Gorden, Tierna Davidson, Casey Krueger; Danielle Colaprico, Julie Ertz, Vanessa DiBernardo; Arin Wright, Kealia Watt, Mallory Pugh
Portland Thorns (4-1-3-2): Adrianna Franch; Natalia Kuikka, Kelli Hubly, Becky Sauerbrunn, Meghan Klingenberg; Angela Salem; Crystal Dunn, Christine Sinclair, Lindsey Horan; Sophia Smith, Simone Charley
How To Watch
Sunday, May 16th, 6:00 PM CDT; At Providence Park in Portland, OR, online on Twitch