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The Lowdown: 11th hour trade for Morgan Brian shapes Red Stars for stretch run

The Chicago Red Stars’ pursuit of Morgan Brian drew out across several weeks before hitting a snag and eventually being rescued by an 11th-hour deal that could help shape the short and long term futures of the club.

Red Stars coach Rory Dames said making two trades in nine days, with Kristie Mewis being acquired and then shipped back out for Brian, was unsettling for everyone involved with the Red Stars but that the team has handled it well and looks to have a recent three-match losing streak in the rearview mirror.

“I wouldn’t say negative,” Dames said of the vibe following the second trade. “You bring somebody in, you welcome them, she steps into your first 11 and has a positive impact on the game, and she starts to settle in—and then this happened literally at the 12th hour. To be honest, I think that was a little unsettling for all of us.

“I’m proud of the group and how they handled it. I thought Kristie handled it with a lot of class.”

The Red Stars did not necessarily acquire Mewis with the idea of using her as a trade asset, but they did have an inkling that it could happen. “When I spoke with Kristie when we first got her, I told her that there are some other things going on that she might be involved in and that I would be as transparent with her as possible as we went through the process,” Dames said.

The roster freeze deadline was Tuesday, August 29. Early that day the Red Stars and Dash engaged in a new round of discussions over a Brian trade, but they did not lead anywhere productive. “For all intents and purposes, it was dead,” Dames said.

Dames trained the team believing there was no trade in place, something he was just fine with. “If we would have ended up not getting Morgan and keeping Kristie, we would have been fine with that. As she showed in the game she played with us, she’s got a lot of quality.

“We also thought that might be another piece of the puzzle that could potentially help us acquire Morgan, which we had been working on for a few weeks.”

At the conclusion of August 29 training, Dames’s boss, Red Stars’ owner Arnim Whisler, informed the coach that a deal might be close after all. Not long after that, it was done. Mewis was on her way to the Dash in return for Morgan Brian. The Dash are also in line to receive future considerations, but for the time being those considerations are being kept under wraps. Most believe them to be tied to Brian’s health and/or long-term future in NWSL. Prior to coming off the bench last weekend against the Courage, she had not played since a brief run in Tournament of Nations and has battled nagging hamstring injuries for more than a year.

Morgan Brian’s familiarity with Red Stars teammates stems from two different World Cups and the University of Virginia (photo: U.S. Soccer)

Brian has also been tied to a move to Lyon next year. Dames confirmed that Morgan has been in talks with an overseas club but did not specify which one. Before pulling the trigger on the deal, the Red Stars consulted with the Dash, U.S. Soccer, and eventually Brian herself to discuss her health status with the stretch run and playoffs upon them.

“We went into this with our eyes wide open,” Dames said.

With the trades done and the roster frozen, focus now turns toward securing a playoff berth and trying to advance to and win the NWSL Championship. The Red Stars have built themselves methodically from the overmatched, physical team of 2013 to legitimate title contenders in 2017. But a sudden, three-match losing streak—all at home—threw a bit of chaos into their season.

“Our first priority is to get Morgan healthy,” Dames said. “How that equates into how much we can use her or where we use her, our first commitment is to get her health back up and her confidence back up to where she wants it to be. Second is figure out how we integrate her in.”

Dames also stressed that while Brian will be joining a new team, she has deep connections to several players on the Red Stars. She won the World Cup with Christen Press and Julie Ertz two years ago, the year the Dash took her No. 1 overall. Three years before that she won the U-20 World Cup with Ertz and Vanessa DiBernardo. Brian was in the same class at Virginia with Danielle Colaprico.

“And a player like Morgan isn’t hard to play with,” Dames stressed, “because she’s a simple player that just keeps the ball. She gets it, she passes it. She gets it, she passes it. She just doesn’t give the ball away. So those hard relationships, the midfield pairings, all three of the people that we would play in the midfield with her besides a Sof (Huerta) or (Alyssa) Mautz, she’s already familiar with and has played huge games with. So that’s not an issue. Her understanding of Press’s movements and how she wants the ball and where she wants the ball, they’ve had that connection for three years with the national team. And then Yuki is the easiest to play with because she’s also the simplest and reads the game the best. So I don’t think that stuff is going to change us.”

Dames said the acquisition of Brian could eventually make the squad a bit less direct but added that was probably more for 2018. In the short term, they are trying to get Brian back to full fitness and take each game as it comes. The Red Stars need just one win from their final three matches to reach the playoffs for a record-equaling third season in a row.

However the system and formation shake out, Dames nixed the notion that the extra midfielder will mean Ertz returning to the back line. “Absolutely not. Sam (Johnson) and Katie (Naughton) are the center backs on the team.”

As for Alyssa Naeher, her recent run of questionable form has been the result of an injury suffered during Tournament of Nations. Her training has been managed in the weeks since, and the game started by Michele Dalton was the result of Naeher not loosening up properly ahead of the match. Dames said Naeher is his keeper but that he has no hesitation turning to Dalton if need be.

So is this the Red Stars’ all-in push to win their first trophy? The head coach was non-committal.

“If (Brian) makes it back to full fitness, then potentially,” he said. “But I felt pretty good about or group before the moves.”

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