There’s not really much to say here. The Chicago Red Stars have kicked off their 2021 NWSL Regular Season with a 5-0 loss on the road to the Portland Thorns. This continues their disappointing history against Portland, still winning just a single game out of what is now 24 meetings with the Thorns. In fact, in all of Chicago and Portland outdoor soccer history, Chicago teams have only won 6 games out of 41 total games, thanks mostly to the Chicago Sting of the NASL winning four. The moment that Portland showed up on the schedule, we should’ve seen this coming.
It was only the third minute when Crystal Dunn found herself wide open in the Chicago Red Stars’ box. Unfortunately for her, she whiffed on the ball. Unfortunately for the Red Stars, just a minute later Tierna Davidson would give up an own goal after finishing a cross from Sophia Smith. In the 14th minute, Mallory Pugh, a forward, fouled the Portland Timbers’ Meghan Klingenberg barely inside the box. Christine Sinclair converted and things were very bad very quickly. Even more quick was the counter-attack from Portland where Sophia Smith finally got her own goal in the 16th minute directly after what was Chicago’s best chance of the afternoon. Smith would add another in the 30th minute, also off of a counter-attack.
While the Chicago Red Stars seemed to have stopped the bleeding somewhat in the second half, they also didn’t do much to help themselves, with very little attempts to attack. Portland continued the onslaught, with Alyssa Naeher finally making the sort of save everyone knows she can make in the 54th minute on a volley from Raquel Rodriguez. Unfortunately, in the 72nd minute Naeher didn’t quite get a hold of a Sinclair shot and Tyler Lussi dug the ball out and into the back of the net for a final score of 5-0.
Here are three things we’ve learned from the first game of the season:
This One Ertz
The final score was bad, but the thing that will truly wear on the Chicago Red Stars for a long time was the 29th minute injury to captain Julie Ertz. Usually a player who shrugs off most physical altercations, something was immediately and noticeably wrong when she stayed down following a duel in the center of the pitch. Play continued until the ball went out, at which point the cameras tracked back to Ertz, clearly in pain. As she was evaluated and helped off the pitch, she was unable to put even the slightest bit of pressure on her right leg. After the game it was confirmed that it was an injury to the right knee, although there’s still no word on the severity.
Losing the game was losing one game, but losing Julie Ertz means possibly losing the entire season. The Chicago Red Stars have already shown an inability to score after losing a key striker and despite having one of the best goalkeepers in Alyssa Naeher, Julie Ertz is the key defender. Without Ertz, that defense just doesn’t work right. This was seen for much of that second half. While they only gave up two of the five goals after Ertz came off the pitch, both were team breakdowns, unlike the penalty and own goal which were single-player breakdowns.
If the Red Stars have to play a season without Julie Ertz, that might finally be game over.
This flows right into the next point which is an uncomfortable topic for Chicago Red Stars fans: The rest of the NWSL has gotten better and left Chicago behind. For a long period of time, especially in the Red Stars’ best seasons, there were certain teams that you could call “easy games” on the calendar. Teams like Sky Blue FC, Orlando Pride, Houston Dash, even the Utah Royals were essentially training dummies for the rest of the league. But since the mass exodus of 2020, there’s been this leveling of the NWSL landscape.
Sky Blue FC rebranded into Gotham FC and are now one of the top teams in the league. The Utah Royals moved back to Kansas City and are getting some timeless performances out of Amy Rodriguez. The Orlando Pride are finally getting a healthy Marta to lead them, the Houston Dash won the 2020 Challenge Cup with Rachel Daly, even the Racing Louisville expansion team has built a reliable roster. Meanwhile, the Chicago Red Stars boast their strength in an unchanged lineup from past successful seasons. But those seasons haven’t resulted in any silverware and while the personnel losses have been few, they have been MAJOR losses.
The Portland Timbers are a perfect example of a team that has taken a team that could already win, made moves, and has become incredibly better. And it was clear on the pitch that they, and the rest of the NWSL, have left the Chicago Red Stars behind.
Time To Move On?
What next, then? It’s honestly hard to tell. It’s so early in the season and while I still fully assert that pretty much the entire league has passed up the Chicago Red Stars, the Portland Thorns are just that good of a team that a loss is understandable and expected. But, there’s been a small sentiment through the fan-base for a while that maybe Rory Dames just isn’t the right coach for the team. This has really just been an opinion held by tactical nerds and kept in hushed tones as Dames has done great things with the club.
Rory Dames has been the coach for a decade now, taking over back when the team left the WPS and joined the WPSL. He’s shown an incredibly ability to be connected within the Chicago youth soccer community, developing and bringing in the best local talent. Players like Vanessa DiBernardo, Katie Naughton, Sarah Gorden, and Casey Krueger are all Chicagoans and have proven to be top quality players in the NWSL thanks to being given an opportunity on the Red Stars. He’s also found and developed other talent like Danielle Colaprico, Julie Ertz, Arin Wright, and Sophia Huerta. He’s got an incredible ability to identify talent. But on the pitch his tactics are less-than-impressive, with much of his tenure spent having the team play a kick and run style for Christen Press and later Sam Kerr.
Under Rory Dames, the Chicago Red Stars have never been bad. But they’ve also never been the best. They’ve never won NWSL silverware, despite making the playoffs in every year since 2015 and never having a losing season under Dames. Dames has shown the ability to bring in players that have turned into club legends, even national heroes. But without anything to show for it, it might be time to move on from him at the helm.