Chicago Red Stars

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

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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.”

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.

Red Stars enter NWSL semifinals with chip on shoulder

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Dan Bartel, ISI Photos

Red Stars enter NWSL semifinals with chip on shoulder

Just over a year ago the Chicago Red Stars hosted a National Women’s Soccer League semifinal and had high expectations for a playoff run.

However, it all came crashing down quickly in a 3-0 loss at Toyota Park in which visiting FC Kansas City scored all three goals in the first 25 minutes. Kansas City went on to win the league title and the Red Stars were left to wonder what the heck just happened.

Now, the Red Stars have a chance at redemption in a return to the NWSL semifinals. The Red Stars will visit the Washington Spirit on Friday.

“I’m personally really excited to play on Friday, to be back in the semifinals the year after kind of a hard loss last season against Kansas City,” Red Stars forward Christen Press said. “I think that the girls that were here last year we kind of have a chip on our shoulder about that match and how it went down. I think that’s helped motivate us to get back.”

After finishing third in the NWSL regular season the Red Stars have to go on the road in this year’s semifinal. The Spirit and Red Stars are the only two teams to return from the 2015 playoffs and both lost 3-0 in the semifinals so the redemption factor goes both ways.

The Red Stars are well aware of what happened last year, but coach Rory Dames doesn’t expect a repeat.

“I expect the game to not be over 20 minutes in,” Dames said. “Different team, different year.”

[SHOP: Pick up a national team jersey t-shirt of Red Stars defender Julie Johnston]

This year’s Red Stars racked up plenty of individual accolades in getting back to the playoffs. Press is one of five finalists for league MVP, Julie Johnston and Arin Gilliland are Defender of the Year finalists and Alyssa Naeher is up for Goalkeeper of the Year.

A win would push the Red Stars into the club’s first NWSL final in the NWSL’s fourth season. Last year’s semifinal was the first playoff appearance for the Red Stars.

The Red Stars just beat the Spirit on Saturday 3-1 in the regular season finale at Toyota Park. Back on July 9 the Spirit won 2-0 at the Maryland SoccerPlex, host site of Friday’s semifinal.

“We played them at (their) home earlier in the season and it didn’t end the way we wanted,” said midfielder Courtney Raetzman, who graduated from Conant High School in Hoffman Estates. “But I think we showed that we can play with them and as our game just showed, we beat them and we probably didn’t even perform to our absolute best so I’m really excited going into this next game.”

Dames said playing back-to-back games against a playoff opponent “isn’t ideal” in terms of coaching but it’s also a confidence boost to have a win heading into the playoffs.

“I think it’s a good and a bad thing because we both have extra video on each other, on playing each other specifically,” midfielder Taylor Comeau said. “We have a couple things that we definitely want to clean up and we’ll rewatch the film and clean up just what we think we need to and hopefully have a better performance in the next game.”

The winner of Friday’s semifinal will play in the NWSL final in Houston’s BBVA Compass Stadium on Oct. 9.