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Red Stars enter 2017 season hoping to get past semifinal barrier

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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.


Newcomers

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.

Five things from Fire closing regular season and learning playoff fate

Five things from Fire closing regular season and learning playoff fate

For all the permutations and possibilities, nothing changed on the final day of the MLS regular season in the Eastern Conference.

The Fire closed the MLS regular season with an ugly loss in Houston, but can refocus on the team's first playoff game since 2012. The club will host the New York Red Bulls this week, likely on Wednesday, but possibly Thursday depending on what the TV partners select.

That playoff game will take place at home against the New York Red Bulls. With Atlanta failing to beat Toronto and Columbus failing to beat New York City FC on the road, the standings remained as they were heading into the final day of the regular season.

The Fire will enter the playoffs as the No. 3 seed and finish with the third best record in the league. Here are five things from the loss in Houston and looking ahead to the playoffs.

Fire lay an egg in the finale

Playing in Houston is always tough. The Dynamo lost just once at home all season. That said, the Fire fell behind less than two minutes in on a long throw and didn't create many dangerous chances when the game was still competitive.

Bastian Schweinsteiger didn't play, but this is still a concerning performance. The Fire entered with an eye on potentially earning a first-round bye with a win. This was not a desirable early start in a big game. It turned out the Fire got the help they needed to earn that second seed with a win (New York City FC drew 2-2 against Columbus), but didn't take care of business on their own.

The absense of Michael de Leeuw has affected both the team's attack and its depth. Arturo Alvarez can be dangerous as a starter, but Luis Solignac hasn't been as dangerous in de Leeuw's old role. It also has removed Alvarez as an attacking option off the bench.

Fire should be rested for the playoffs

Once the Fire were trailing by two goals, coach Veljko Paunovic subbed out David Accam and Dax McCarty. Those are moves to keep both fresh ahead of the playoff game that will be just a few days away. Matt Polster was also subbed out in the second half when it was still 1-0 Houston.

In addition, Richard Sanchez played in goal in place of Matt Lampson. Sanchez starred in the Fire's win in San Jose just under a month ago, but was at least partially at fault for the second goal. Lampson will enter with a bit of extra rest for the playoffs.

Schweinsteiger's health with remain in question, but him sitting out the last two games was done in an effort to keep him fresh for the playoffs.

Joao Meira picked up an injury in the win against Philadelphia and was limping heavily in the locker room after the game. He didn't start in Houston, but did repace Polster in the 66th minute.

Juninho, also on his way back from injury, replaced Accam in the 71st minute. Juninho had missed the previous five matches due to a knee injury.

Depending on lineup selection and fitness, the Fire could start as many as seven players against the Red Bulls (Lampson, Meira, Polster, Juninho, Schweinsteiger, Accam, McCarty) that will not be coming off full 90-minute performances. This is important because the Red Bulls weren't playing for anything on Sunday and rested all their key players (goalkeeper Luis Robles excepted), knowing they would be the No. 6 seed.

Plenty of storylines for first-round games in East

There was plenty of drama around the league regarding the battle for seeds. The final playoff berth in the Western Conference was decided on a 93rd-minute goal by San Jose.

All the jockeying has resulted in some juicy matchups, especially in the Eastern Conference. McCarty, a Red Bulls star for years, will take on his former team in the playoffs. That storyline will take center stage when the team play.

Elsewhere, Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium will surely be packed with fans against Columbus. Columbus enters the playoffs with a 10-match unbeaten streak, but word of the team's possible move to Austin will remain the focus for Crew fans.

Previous meetings with Red Bulls

The Fire played the Red Bulls twice in the regular season and failed to win both times.

On the road, in McCarty's return to Red Bull Arena, the Fire lost 2-1 on April 29. McCarty assisted Nemanja Nikolic for a second-half equalizer, but Kemar Lawrence scored a game-winner in the 71st minute.

More recently, the Fire hosted the Red Bulls on Sept. 9 and drew 1-1. The Red Bulls led early and took that led past the hour mark until de Leeuw pulled off a crazy volley flick assist to Nikolic. The Red Bulls pushed for the winning goal despite being on the road, but the Fire held on for a draw.

Nikolic wins the Golden Boot

Playoffs aside, this was a big day for Nikolic. He didn't score, although he did have two big chances in the final 10 minutes, including one that hit the crossbar.

Nikolic's 24 goals stood up as good enough to win the MLS Golden Boot. David Villa scored both of NYCFC's goals to finish with 22 and Diego Valeri (21) didn't score in Portland's 2-1 win against Vancouver to win the top seed in the Western Conference.

Playoff scenarios and scoreboard watching will permeate Sunday for Fire

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Playoff scenarios and scoreboard watching will permeate Sunday for Fire

The Fire will have to keep the travel itinerary open.

Heading into the final day of the regular season on Sunday, the Fire can finish anywhere from second to fifth in the Eastern Conference. As it stands, the Fire sit third and would host a first-game playoff game, but could also head on the road to New York in the first round or even earn a bye.

Depending on what the Fire do in Houston in the regular season finale and what happens elsewhere there are six possible scenarios for the Fire. The Fire could hold onto the No. 3 seed and host the New York Red Bulls, drop to fourth and host either Columbus, Atlanta or New York City FC, fall all the way to the No. 5 seed and travel to New York City or move up to the No. 2 seed and earn a bye into the conference semifinals.

In order to get the bye, the Fire must win and have NYCFC fail to beat Columbus. A draw in Houston would result in a home game in the first round, regardless of other results.

“Definitely things can happen,” defender Matt Polster said. “We’ve looked at it obviously. Columbus can do something and then we do something obviously things happen. It’s not that we don’t look at it as players, but at the end of the day we just want to win.”

Winning in Houston won’t be easy considering the team has an 11-1-4 record at home this season. On top of that, Houston is also fighting for playoff positioning. The Dynamo clinched a playoff berth last weekend and could move into a top four spot with a win and some help.

Expect the Fire to control the possession. Houston likes to play on the counter to utilize speedy attackers Alberth Elis (10 goals, 4 assists), Mauro Manotas (9 goals, 5 assists) and Erick Torres (14 goals, 3 assists).

“We know they’re fast up top so I think for myself, especially being very attacking-minded I definitely have to play a little bit more defensive and wait for the right opportunities to go forward,” Polster said. “Maybe more something like Montreal with (Ignacio) Piatti.”

The Fire’s midfield will still be shorthanded with Bastian Schweinsteiger expected to sit out to continue to rest his calf injury. Juninho returned to training this week after missing the past five games and could play next to Dax McCarty. The Brazilian described the injury as chronic with a bone bruise and some cartilage issues, but he said he feels 100 percent now.

All 11 MLS games on Sunday will start at 3 p.m. The Fire will be on NBC Sports Chicago with coverage starting with Fire Pregame Live at 2:30 p.m.

The other games of importance to the Fire are Columbus at NYCFC and Atlanta hosting Supporters’ Shield-winning Toronto. Coach Veljko Paunovic said he will be drawing on his experience coaching the Serbian Under-20s for how to handle the scoreboard watching aspect of the day.

“Obviously you cannot ignore what’s going on in the other games,” Paunovic said. “We know what we have to say or not say and when to say and all these things so it’s a craft that this job is.

“It’s good to know the information. Then you can manage it.”