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The Lowdown: No rivalry yet between Blues, Red Stars

Ella Masar_Chicago_Red Stars
Ella Masar_Chicago_Red Stars

Ella Masar buried the game-winner Sunday for the Red Stars, who have won three of their last four games. (Photo courtesy Chicago Red Stars/Smith)

To ask the participants, there is not exactly a rivalry just yet between FC Kansas City and the Chicago Red Stars.  The respective cities don’t even have a whole lot of sporting animosity on which to draw.  But the first two meetings between the Midwest clubs whose stadiums are separated by just over 500 miles came during a four-day stretch last Thursday through Sunday.

The Red Stars and Blues exchanged victories, each earning three points on the others’ home grounds.  The results leave the Red Stars five points adrift of FC Kansas City for the final playoff position in the NWSL table.  That seems odd considering FCKC has been one of the more attractive and defensively responsible teams in the league, while the Red Stars looked overmatched during much of their 0-4-2 start.

“This season overall the record is not what I personally expected,” FC Kansas City coach Vlatko Andonovski said of his team that sits in 4th place at 5-4-1 (16 points).  “I was hoping for a little better record.”

Andonovski went on to discuss the Blues losses and surmised that the only time they were distinctly outplayed was a 2-1 loss at Western New York.  After that they lost 1-0 to Sky Blue FC despite playing down a woman for 68 minutes, and 4-3 in Portland in a match Andonovski says, “could have gone either way.”

Against the Red Stars on Sunday the coach said, “It was a little too much from a physical aspect for us.  It was out fourth game in 11 days and our bench was not deep enough.  We did not have enough players on the bench.  But they continued to follow the philosophy and the style.”

The good news was that Renae Cuellar returned from what was a scary-looking knee injury and scored her 5th goal of the season before the Red Stars scored three unanswered.  It was the third win in four matches for the Chicago side that went winless it its first six.

“It’s always better to win than to lose,” Red Stars coach Rory Dames said.

Dames has not been shy about his team’s inferior allocation or about how his roster has less players with top flight experience than most.  Still he points to a lack of mistakes as the main reason for his team’s reversal of fortunes.

“We passed the ball better,” he began.  “We have gotten some breaks that we didn’t get in the first few games.  And the Germans have brought a bit of experience and composure and professionalism that we were lacking.”

The Germans are Inka Grings and Sonja Fuss.  Coincidentally or not, their arrival in the lineup has run parallel with the team’s recent string of wins, and the Red Stars are 3-0-0 when Grings starts.  Sunday afternoon they each scored their first NWSL goal in the 3-1 victory at Kansas City.

[MORE: Lori Chalupny is The Equalizer’s Week 10 Player of the Week]

“I think the biggest difference from the mistakes that we’re making is Sonja,” Dames said.  “Sonja is a professional in every sense of the word.  She is extremely intelligent about the game, and she’s very vocal and holds the players very accountable.  That helps.  She’s been great for Taryn (Hemmings).  We’ve been high on Taryn all year but we’ve just needed someone back there who could calm her down a bit.  Sonja has calmed down not only Taryn, she’s calmed down Rachel (Quon), she’s calmed down (Michelle) Wenino, who has been great on the right side for us the last two matches.  I think that’s all a byproduct of Sonja.”

In Grings, the Red Stars now have a player who can finish chances and can take some off the pressure off Lori Chalupny.  Dames is particularly impressed with how she moves without the ball.

“They’re still trying to figure each other out a little bit but they’re starting to link up a little more,” the coach said of Grings and Chalupny.  “Grings is very intelligent about moving off the ball and the spaces she finds.  You have to be aware of her.”

Other impressive Red Stars have been Maribel Dominguez, Julianne Sitch, and Jackie Santacaterina.  Leslie Osborne returned last weekend but Shannon Boxx and Zakiya Bywaters are not close to seeing game action.

The injury vibe in Kansas City is entirely different.  With Cuellar back Andonovski has pronounced the club fully fit.  The question heading into weekend action against the Spirit is whether the U.S. or Canadian internationals will be available.

“I know that they are going to be back in Kansas City,” he said, “but I will have to wait until the national teams are over until [I] see if they play or how much they are going to play.”

Canada plays Wednesday in Germany and the U.S. plays the next night in New Jersey.  The Blues play Sunday.

With a dozen games left, Andonovski will be looking to convert the team’s possession into more points the rest of the way.

“I think that we can compete with every team in the league,” he said.  “The beauty of this league is any team on any given day can win the game.

“We need to get into a stretch of winning a few games in a row.  Just to get the points on the board and get the confidence of winning a few games in a row.  As a team on the field I think we’re doing well.  I think that we’re ready for the next stretch of five games in 14 days.”

Andonovski says he feels no rivalry yet between FC Kansas City and their Midwest neighbors in Chicago.  Dames believes a rivalry cannot develop until they meet at full strength.  Maybe it will happen July 14 in Chicago, or maybe August 18 in Kansas City when the clubs meet in their final game of the season.  Having a playoff spot on the line for one or both teams could be the tipping point.

Tony DiCicco weighs in

Tony DiCicco, former head coach of the U.S. national team and Boston Breakers when they were in WPS, says he would welcome a return to coaching at either the club or international level.  For now he is running his SoccerPlus clubs and of course keeping tabs on all things NWSL.

“It’s a good level,” he said.  “Maybe not the level of the WPS, but not far off.  When you don’t have Kelly Smith, Marta, (Camille) Abily and (Sonia) Bompastor and so on, it does affect the level a little bit.  But I still think it’s good and there are some good internationals.”

DiCicco, who was also commissioner of WUSA, believes that Lyon remains the top team in the world but that NWSL is a better and deeper league.  “Even the teams that are struggling at the bottom, the games are all competitive.”

Back in 2010, DiCicco was the first person to go on record about WPS clubs spending “off budget,” which was a clever way to pay players more than the salary cap officially allowed.  That loophole, plus the emergence of a rogue owner, helped sink the league.

“I think it is,” he said when asked if the NWSL format is finally the winning model.  “The business plan is the best we’ve had.  Now it’s just U.S. Soccer and the ownership group have to sustain it.”

On best teams, DiCicco said the Thorns are tops on paper.  “However, I saw Jim Gabarra and he said he has a good team and a deep team.  But I think every team can beat every other team.  I think teams that are struggling a little bit now are going to strengthened so I think it should be very competitive through the summer.”

Where are the goals coming from?

Throughout the season The Lowdown will track where the goals are coming from in terms of the different levels of roster building.  In Week 10, three different Mexican allocations and five different discovery players found the back of the net.  Also Vicki DiMartino (No. 22 overall draft pick) became the first member of the 2013 college draft taken after the 2nd round to score in NWSL. Here’s how the goals break down with Week 10 totals in parenthesis.:

Allocated players – 49 (3)
United States – 26; Canada – 15; Mexico – 8 (3)
College Draft – 8 (1)
Free Agent – 26 (3)
Supplemental Draft – 11 (3)
Discovery et al. 11 (5)
Own Goals – 1

Note:  Free Agent refers to any player signed during the free agent window immediately following the college draft; Discovery includes any player acquired through means not included in any other category

Free Kicks

– Becky Edwards tore her ACL in training last the week, ending a season that began with visions of a national team call-up (which Portland owner Merritt Paulson said was happening in September).  It is a blow to a Thorns midfield that was underachieving even with Edwards in the lineup.

– Alyssa Naeher may have suffered a broken nose during her first NWSL game action.  She came in at the half to replace Ashley Phillips.  The Breakers are waiting for the swelling to subside before getting a firm diagnosis. (reporting by Meg Linehan)

– The Red Stars are not expecting either Shannon Boxx or Zakiya Bywaters back at least for the rest of the month, possibly longer.

– Flash coach Aaran Lines said the team’s stretch of eight road matches in 10 would “decide our season.”  So far, so good as they are 2-0-1 ahead on Wednesday’s match in Chicago.

– Toni Pressley made her NWSL debut for the Spirit on Saturday against the Western New York Flash.  It was for the Flash that Pressley hit a 96th minute equalizer to save them from defeat in last year’s WPSL Elite final.  They Flash eventually won on penalties.

The Spirit have also added Conny Pohlers on loan but she was not available against the Flash.  Pohlers, who played in WUSA for the Beat, is on loan from VfL Wolfsburg.

– Portland announced the signing of 29-year-old forward Tiffany Weimer, who spent the 2012/13 Danish Elitedivisionen season with Fortuna Hjørring, where she tallied a team-high 11 goals during the regular season as the club finished the season in second place behind undefeated Brondby


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