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Red Stars reflect on productive winter in Australia

Sofia Huerta is one of eight Red Stars to spend the offseason playing in Australia. Rory Dames says he can see the difference.

Sofia Huerta is one of eight Red Stars to spend the offseason playing in Australia. Rory Dames says he can see the difference.

Sofia Huerta is one of eight Red Stars to spend the offseason playing in Australia. Rory Dames says he can see the difference.

This past winter, three dozen National Women’s Soccer League players packed their bags and traveled thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean in order to compete in Australia’s W-League from November to February.

And while every NWSL team participated in this mass migration of talent, the Chicago Red Stars led the charge with eight players making the trans-hemispheric journey to the other side of the world.

Nudged by their head coach, Rory Dames, who told The Equalizer, “It’s hard to call yourself a professional soccer player and not play soccer for five months,” this cohort of youngsters boarded flights for new adventures in Adelaide, Newcastle, Perth and Melbourne.

“I loved it,” said Red Stars attacker Sofia Huerta, who scored eight goals in the W-League this past season. “My rookie off-season I didn’t play, I just did my own workouts. I am a dedicated person, so I did stay on top of getting fit, but it’s just a lot different when you are playing in a league and you’re playing games.

“Nothing can compare to playing games. I can workout as much as I want, but getting touches and getting in situations where you have to make a play and getting 90-minute fit is so much better.”

Midfielder Danielle Colaprico, who along with Huerta and Katie Naughton played for Adelaide United, echoed the sentiment that getting off-season matches played a big part in her decision to head to Australia.

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“I had heard from some of the girls in the past that it was a good way to keep playing in the off-season because our off-season is pretty long to not play a game,” said Colaprico.

“It was very helpful in terms of training with a team every day and being around a team environment every day because it’s hard to do stuff on your own every day. I mean, there’s only so much you can do when you’re by yourself.”

The knowledge that they needed to improve their games to make an impact on a Red Stars team that will be stacked with talent in 2017 was also a key factor for a number of players.

“I knew that if I wanted to make a difference on this team, I needed to stay sharp and do well in the off-season,” said Naughton, who earned nine starts at center back for Chicago in her rookie campaign last year. The defender wants to play a bigger role this season and credits her experience in the W-League with boosting her confidence.

Dames has also recognized a difference in Naughton after her experience in Australia, citing her as his team’s most improved player in this year’s preseason camp and naming her as the team’s best player in Chicago’s first preseason match against the Portland Thorns.

In addition to improving their game, several players mentioned the intangible benefits of playing abroad.

“The best part was being able to refocus,” explained Huerta. “The Red Stars season is long and towards the end it’s hectic and it gets stressful. Being able to go to Australia and not have as much pressure—because it was to go and get touches and get better as a player—was good for me to realize what I needed to change personally in terms of getting better for the Red Stars and changing things about my habits.”

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Forward Jen Hoy, who played for the Newcastle Jets this winter with Chicago teammate Arin Gilliland, explained that her time in Australia has allowed her to come back to the Red Stars with a “refreshed perspective.” She also added that “there are some of the nicest people in the world over there,” and credits her W-League coach, teammates and host family for an “incredible” experience.

Still, all of the players faced various challenges abroad, both on the field and off.

While midfielder Vanessa DiBernardo—who returned to Perth Glory after a successful loan last winter—helped lead her team to the W-League final along with fellow Red Star Alyssa Mautz, the rest of Chicago’s players were on losing teams.

Adelaide finished the season with only 14 points from 12 games and had a roster that included a number of teenagers, as young as 15 and 16 years old. That experience frustrated some of the more competitive Red Stars who are used to a winning environment.

“At first, I had high expectations because I like being on a winning team and at Adelaide we struggled for the first part of the season. That was tough for me,” said Colaprico. “It’s not fun to lose. You can only imagine the kind of drama that went through the team when we were losing.”

Many of the players also struggled with spending the holidays, including Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s, away from family and friends.

“The challenging part for me is being away from home, especially around the holidays,” said DiBernardo.

As the Illinois native pointed out, the almost inconceivable distance—nearly 11,000 miles from her hometown of Naperville to Perth—makes it exceptionally difficult for American players on loan to alleviate any homesickness with visits to or from loved ones.

“It’s not like it’s an eight-hour flight, it takes a day and half [to get there],”she explained.

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However, each of the players was buoyed through difficult times in their own way. Huerta explained that her teammates went out of their way to make the Chicago trio at Adelaide feel at home and DiBernardo noted that her Perth teammates celebrated Thanksgiving with the American players.

Of the eight Red Stars in the W-League last season, all but one—Sam Johnson, who played for the Melbourne Victory—also had a Red Stars teammate to help keep them company.

“It was truly a blessing that [Arin] was able to come last minute and we got to spend a ton of time together and get to know each other a lot better,” said Hoy.

Huerta added that she had “a part of Chicago with me at Adelaide” and “at times when it did get difficult, I had them by my side going through the same thing and [had them] to talk to.”

Heading into 2017, Dames said he can see a “night and day” difference in his players who went to Australia and that “every one of them says, ‘I don’t know how I didn’t do it last year.”

Chicago is widely expected to compete for a title this season, but Dames and some of his players are more cautious. “Everyone is going to say you want to win a championship, but you can’t jump to that without doing the small things right,” explained Hoy.

Even so, many Red Stars remain bullish on their prospects for big things in 2017.

“We’ve been in the semifinals twice, so our goal is to win [a title],” said DiBernardo. “It’s not even a goal to get to the final four anymore. We know that we’ve done that twice.”

Colaprico agreed and added, “We want to win it this year, and we have the players to do so.”

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