Red Stars enter 2017 season hoping to get past semifinal barrier

Chicago Red Stars | Annex | @multimarz

Red Stars enter 2017 season hoping to get past semifinal barrier

For each of the past two seasons the Chicago Red Stars have been knocked out in the National Women's Soccer League's semifinals.

Instead of reinforcing the team with a number of new players in the hopes of upgrading the roster, the Red Stars are staying the course, hoping what was a young team last year can improve without many changes. Of the Red Stars' 20-player roster, 17 players are back from last season and four are U.S. national teamers (Christen Press, Julie Ertz (Johnston), Alyssa Naeher and Casey Short). Naeher, who turns 29 on April 20, is the oldest player on the team.

The Red Stars unveiled new jerseys and new branding for the season, which starts Saturday at Houston with the home opener a week later at Toyota Park.

Getting past the semifinals

In 2015, the Red Stars hosted a semifinal against FC Kansas City, but exited in unceremonious fashion with a 3-0 loss. Last year the Red Stars fell at the Washington Spirit 2-1 in extra time.

"It's definitely disappointing to come away with a loss in the semifinal and I think that we have the experience of playing in those semifinals and it's a lot of the same players," midfielder Danielle Colaprico said. "I think this is the year where we can really push to the final and hopefully win it."

Name change for a big name player

As a starter on the 2015 World Cup-winning national team Julie Johnston's name has some recognition. She is now going by Julie Ertz after getting married to Philadelphia Eagles tight end Zach Ertz in late March.

"Having Johnston for 25 years of my life was such a huge part of me," Ertz said. "It's pretty cool to have Zach also be a professional athlete and I think having that last name together it's kind of a football, football kind of connection that we have. He's been there since I started my professional career and same with him as well. We've grown on and off the field together. I know it means a lot to him, as much as it does to me, and showing our marriage to become one."

National team quartet

The Red Stars have four players listed as allocated national teamers for the upcoming season. Only Portland, with five, has more. Press, Ertz and Naeher were all on the 2015 World Cup team. Defender Casey Short joined the list of allocated national teamers this year, having become a regular since the new cycle began after the Olympics.

"She got to go against typical national team players, especially on her side as a left back, and she's been great," Ertz said of Short. "She's learned and grown in any role that (coach) Rory (Dames) had her play, that the team had her play. She's loving it. She's doing great so we're just proud of her."

Returning core

The Red Stars bring back 10 of the 11 starters from the semifinal loss at Washington, including leading goal scorers Press (8 goals) and Sofia Huerta (7 goals) and assist leader Vanessa DiBernardo (7 assists). Press and defender Arin Gilliland were named to the league's Best XI while Naeher, Ertz, Short, Colaprico and DiBernardo were named to the second team.

"I think in years past our team actually overperformed for what we had," Press said. "I think we're really proud of that and going into this season I think the group is so much more solid and for us it's very much in our goal and in our realm and reason to win a championship this season."

Press isn't alone in this view. NWSL Media voted the Red Stars as the top ranked team entering the season.


With so many players back there aren't many newcomers. Three players are new: draft picks Morgan Proffitt and Lauren Kaskie, both midfielders, and forward Summer Green.

Green, a former U.S. youth national team player, impressed the Red Stars this preseason to earn a roster spot. She was drafted by Seattle last year, but sat out the year with a knee injury, which kept her out for nine months.

Fire sign veteran MLS forward Alan Gordon


Fire sign veteran MLS forward Alan Gordon

As far as notorious players in MLS with a history of scoring big goals, Alan Gordon is one of the first names on that list.

The Fire signed the 36-year-old forward on Friday, continuing to add depth to a roster that appeared paper thin throughout the preseason. Gordon, who had been on trial with the Fire for part of the preseason and even after the season opener, signed a one-year deal.

Gordon adds plenty of experience from being in the league since 2004 and having scored 55 goals with five different teams. For the past few years he has been used primarily as a substitute, but has still maintained his reputation for scoring goals late in games.

At 6-foot-3 he brings plenty of size and strength to the team and is one of the best players on headers in the league. Last season the Fire failed to score directly off a set piece, which was both due to consistently poor service from corner kicks and a lack of players adept at finishing them off. Gordon should give the Fire a late-game option in that area.

Elliot Collier had impressed the Fire enough to earn a contract as a third-round pick and an international player and even came off the bench in the opening loss to Sporting Kansas City, but it appears the team wanted more experience at forward with Gordon.

Wild season opener shows plenty of things to work on for Fire

Wild season opener shows plenty of things to work on for Fire

If you were looking for entertainment, goals, plot twists and storylines, the Fire’s season opener had all of those boxes checked.

What it didn’t have was even a point for the hosts against Sporting Kansas City on Saturday at Toyota Park.

The first half showed a Fire team which very much looked like the “incomplete” roster that general manager Nelson Rodriguez referenced just before the season. KC led 2-0 and the Fire failed to get a shot on target, showing a lack of chance creation and any semblance of a dangerous attack.

The second half showed a Fire attack which was capable of turning the heat up on the visitors, but also a defense which couldn’t defend. Sporting's 4-3 win revealed that there’s plenty of work to do for the Fire to resemble the team that finished third in the MLS regular season last year.

“Especially in the first half we saw that we weren’t ready to compete with a team that had an advantage that they had one competition game before us,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “That was the main difference in the first half, but the adjustment in the second half was tremendous. I think just showing that we can score three goals that quickly and create even more opportunities was a positive.”

However, Paunovic wasn’t about to let his team off the hook by only speaking about positives.

“What we learned today is that we have to get better on every side of the game and in every aspect of the game,” he said. “We are not there. We didn’t have a good game. I think overall a lot of innocent and naive mistakes.”

After trailing 2-0 at halftime, the Fire revved things up in the final 25 minutes and Bastian Schweinsteiger keyed the first goal with a slick assist to newcomer Aleksandar Katai. Nemanja Nikolic showed the scoring instincts and finishing ability that won him the league scoring title a year ago by scoring two more goals to give the Fire the lead in the 82nd minute.

Then it all fell apart, with two KC goals within four minutes of Nikolic giving the Fire the lead. Dax McCarty, your thoughts?

“You’re 10 minutes away from the headline and the storyline being Chicago Fire show great character, make a fantastic comeback, win the game 3-2 and yet here we are sitting here, somehow losing that game, which is insane,” McCarty said. “It’s totally insane.”

The defensive struggles, which Paunovic pointed out mirrored last year’s early playoff exit in a 4-0 loss, will need to get resolved internally. Johan Kappelhof, Brandon Vincent and Matt Polster all started on a competent defense last year and McCarty and Schweinsteiger helped play damage control in midfield. This isn’t what the weakness of the team was supposed to be yet after one game, it’s all anyone on the team could talk about.

“We gave up four goals,” Kappelhof said. “That’s not good. Simple.”

While more additions may be coming in-season, as Rodriguez has mentioned, and injuries haven’t allowed the Fire to start 2018 fresh, this game wasn’t a good sign for what’s to come for the 2018 Fire. A lack of any offensive creation in the first half and a lack of defensive concentration, as Paunovic put it, throughout the game showed a team that has plenty of pock-marks currently.

“We don’t know how to defend, quite frankly," McCarty said. "From back to front, front to back, the defending aspect of our game was pretty poor. A lot of things to learn."

The good news is even if the Fire take some time to correct the errors from Saturday’s season opener, MLS is a forgiving league. A majority of the league, 12 of 23 teams, makes the playoffs and league-wide parity means teams can go through slumps and still end in good standing. A year ago, the Fire lost six games out of seven and still had the third best record in the league. It’s OK if the team takes time to iron out some organizational issues defensively, just don’t take too long.