The Equalizer will be posting previews for all 10 NWSL clubs over the next two weeks.
Last season (8-3-9, 2nd place; lost semifinal): The Red Stars reached new heights in 2015, pacing the league into the summer and checking in second behind repeat Shield winner Seattle Reign FC. That was enough to earn them a debut playoff appearance though that did not go so well, a 3-0 loss to FC Kansas City in their now permanent home, Toyota Park.
Key Changes: With Karina LeBlanc retired, Rory Dames set out to find himself a top-flight goalkeeper. He came eventually landed Alyssa Naeher with defender Abby Ercegg as the main bait (Ercegg was traded to Western New York for Whitney Engen who was flipped to Boston for Naeher.) Dames also secured the services of Casey Short to play right back. A 1st round pick in 2013, Short has still never played in NWSL, the first two years through injury followed by a campaign in Norway. In the midfield, Lori Chalupny called it a career leaving incumbents like Vanessa DiBerardo and Alyssa Mautz with more responsibility than ever.
Another change is the move to Toyota Park and its expansive grass pitch. After three seasons at the cost-effective but limiting Benedictine University Sports Complex, the move to Toyota will allow the Red Stars to continue their evolution into a more attractive side.
“I definitely think the players we have and the style of play that we started to move towards last year, it’s definitely more suited for Toyota Park,” Dames said. “Benedictine was 120 x 64 (in yards; Toyota Park is 120 x 75) so there wasn’t a lot of reason to do much other than try to go north-south. When we played at Toyota Park even last year, what we tried to do was a little bit different than when we played at home.”
Strengths: Christen Press played only 11 games for the Red Stars last season but she managed 10 goals in those appearances and may have been the best striker in the league for her sample size.
“Christen is a presence on the field and Christen has the ability to do things that nobody else in the league quite honestly has the ability to do,” Dames said. “She can turn a game on its head in a three-second moment.”
In midfield, Danielle Colaprico will be trying to build on her Rookie of the Year campaign that saw her get a brief look from the national team. As a rookie the Red Stars plugged Colaprico in as the holding midfielder and she helped change the way the club attacked.
“Dani’s Dani,” Dames said. “We changed a huge part of the way we played last year solely because she could go into that pocket and get us in and out of pressure. Her time with the national team in the offseason definitely didn’t hurt her. She looks a lot more constant and a lot more fluid. I’m excited about that.”
Sofia Huerta and Jen Hoy are a superb pairing to play as a second and third forward and super-aggressive left back Arin Gilliland is being handed some extra responsibility ahead of her second season. Naeher was Goalkeeper of the Year in 2014 despite playing to a 2.26 goals against on a poor Breakers side. She should thrive behind a solid Red Stars defense. Michele Dalton makes an excellent backup and should step right in when Naeher joins the United States.
Areas of Development: Chalupny started 50 of 66 regular season matches over her three seasons and while no one will specifically replace her, the midfield will be left longing for many of the things Chalupny did. Shannon Boxx retired during last season and was never a fixture on the pitch but her leadership presence will be missed.
Amanda Da Costa was acquired from the Spirit and figures to get plenty of playing time with Colaprico, DiBernardo, and Mautz. But it is fair to ask if the Red Stars current roster has enough wide players to capitalize on the newer, wider home park.
Up top, Huerta had all six of her goals and all three of her assists during the time when Press was on World Cup duty. Dames thinks Huerta played better soccer after the World Cup even though she did not have the goals to show for it. But the coach also acknowledged that several players’ level dropped with Press in the lineup.
“I don’t think that’s Press’s fault,” Dames stressed. “I think that was the youth and inexperience of some of our players last year. Part of the reason Sofia had some success when Christen wasn’t here is because the fluidity of what we were trying to do within the framework of our team was a little bit more structured. And when Christen is here there is a little bit more freedom because you don’t want to tie Christen down or make it too structured for her.
“When Jen (Hoy) and Sofia are up front the movements are a little more structured and a little more orchestrated so it made it easier for those two. When Christen jumps into it, they have to be able to read the game a little bit quicker and they have to be able to read Christen.”
Dames added that in the week before Press left to join the current U.S. camp, she was Huerta trained together as much as or more than they did throughout 2015.
Points of Interest: The Red Stars finished up their three seasons at Benedictine with a 10-6-14 record. They also played four times at Toyota Park the last two seasons, winning twice with a draw in the regular season and losing the playoff game. The six regular season home losses is tied with Seattle Reign FC for the second fewest in the three year history of NWSL. FC Kansas City has only lost five times at home. All three teams have lost a home playoff game.
Dames on the general overview of the 2016 Red Stars: “The core of the players that did the work for us last year are back.”