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.”