Chicago Red Stars enter third straight playoff appearance with 'higher expectations'

Chicago Red Stars

Chicago Red Stars enter third straight playoff appearance with 'higher expectations'

The Chicago Red Stars have been one of the most consistent teams in the National Women’s Soccer League’s existence.

This season, the Red Stars earned a third straight playoff berth. Only Portland has made the playoffs more times in the league’s five years.

“It’s the hardest league in the world so we don’t take it for granted to be able to get into the playoffs,” coach Rory Dames said. “The consistency of the group has been exceptional and we’ve gradually added some pieces to try to take us over the hump.”

But something has been missing: playoff success. Each of the last two years the Red Stars have lost in the semifinals. They are hoping the third time is the charm when they visit the defending league champs and top seed North Carolina Courage on Sunday.

North Carolina posted a league-high 16 wins, but three of the team’s seven losses came at the hands of the Red Stars. The Red Stars won all three meetings between the two teams.

“It helps confidence wise, but we know they want us pretty bad as well,” said defender Casey Short, who also joked North Carolina is “not fun to go against.”

Dames admitted the three wins weren’t all clear cut, even going as far as to say a tie would have been fair in the second meeting and that the Red Stars stole a win the third time the teams played.

“We’ve learned in three years now... that it makes no difference what went on during the season,” Dames said. “This is a one-off. They’ll have some different things they’re going to do. We’ll have some different things that we’re going to do. It will be whatever goes on in those 90 minutes that determine who goes onto the final, not what’s gone on during the regular season.”

On paper, the Red Stars have more big names with five World Cup winners on the roster, Americans Christen Press, Julie Ertz, Alyssa Naeher and Morgan Brian and Japanese forward Yuki Nagasato. Nagasato and Brian arrived during the season with injuries and Dames said they are “a little bit behind” in integrating them into the team because of the time they’ve missed. Brian is expected to be out for the semifinal, but could play in the final if the Red Stars make it, according to Dames.

The big game experience on the team should in theory be a boost to a team hungry to improve upon recent playoff failures.

“I don’t know if we’re any more motivated than we were the last two years,” Dames said. “I think there’s more growth, there’s more experience there’s more understanding of how to handle this kind of game, this kind of situation, how you prepare for it.

“I think there’s a different level of confidence, a little bit more experience and a little bit higher expectations.”

Last year’s overtime loss at Washington was especially tough for the Red Stars.

“We want to make this year count,” Short said. “Last year was definitely a heartbreaker as well so we want to change our fate this year for sure.”

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.