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The Lowdown: Red Stars rookies make early impact

Vanessa DiBernardo shined in her pro debut for Chicago. (Photo Courtesy Chicago Red Stars)

Julie Johnston and Vanessa DiBernardo were teammates on the U-20 U.S. side that won the World Cup in 2012. And they were linked together in Chicago when the Red Stars made them the 3rd and 4th overall picks in the NWSL College Draft earlier this year.

“We just understand how each other plays. We’re comfortable,” Johnston said. “We’re the kind of players that ask questions and we ask questions together just to make each other better. I loved having her on the World Cup team and I love having her on this team.”

DiBernardo said the two have never really discussed being Top 4 picks to the same club, but said, “It’s nice to know how each other play and having that comfort within each other.”

Saturday night, in the professional debut for both players, Johnston and DiBernardo linked up again for the only goal in the Red Stars’ season-opening, 1-0 victory over the Western New York Flash. After hanging with the 2013 regular season champion Flash for the better part of an hour the Red Stars won a corner kick and DiBernardo went to the right corner flag to whip it in.

“I try to look for a dangerous area and I know where our runners are going so I look to put it in that area,” she said.

In the 1st half a DiBernardo corner kick found Johnston’s head, but the shot missed the target. At the hour mark they tried again. The moment it left DiBernardo’s foot she thought it had a chance to be a good one. “That one just because…I don’t know, sometimes you just have a feeling after you take the corner kick that it’s going to connect with someone in the box.”

“She just played a perfect ball,” Johnston said. “V and I were on the 20s together so we’ve been practicing crosses here as well as at the World Cup so we’ve had some pairing together. I love playing with her I think she’s a great player.”

“I took corners for the 20s,” DiBernardo said. “She was my target then so it was very comforting to know that she’s still there.”

Beyond hooking up for the goal, Johnston and DiBernardo were game-long contributors to a Red Stars team that took the game to the Flash and kept them off balance for large chunks of the evening at Toyota Park. DiBernardo played an attacking midfield role and often hooked up with striker Jen Hoy. Johnston took up residence at center back and made a few forays forward while helping to hold down the fort in front of goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc.

“I still call myself a midfielder,” Johnston said, adding that she spent a good amount of the preseason at holding midfielder. “I feel like I have more of an offensive mind as well as a defensive mind.”

Julie Johnston scored the game-winner for the Red Stars against the Flash in her pro debut. (Photo Courtesy Chicago Red Stars)

Johnston turned 22 earlier this month, but her age never showed in her professional debut. Chicago coach Rory Dames commented during preseason that he could tell Johnston had spent time at the international level. It was evident again Saturday and Johnson said her two national team caps helped prepare her for the NWSL.

“Very similar,” she said of the two debuts. “However I think because I had my national team debut before this pro debut, I think I was more nervous for my national team debut and it really helped me for this past Saturday. Just because the level was very similar, playing around very good players. I honestly think it just made this one a little bit easier knowing that I was a little bit more comfortable and confident and knew what I was expecting during the game.”

Johnston even found herself as the veteran part of the center back pairing over the final 15 minutes after Jackie Santacaterina had to come off due to cramping and undrafted rookie Samantha Johnson came in.

“We played with different people (in preseason) so that if something like that were to happen it wouldn’t be a shock, so it wasn’t anything different,” Johnston said. “We just had to make sure to be vocal and keep her on the page.”

Johnston says the younger players on the Red Stars naturally look up to veterans like LeBlanc and Lori Chalupny, but that once they get on the field, everyone is the same.

“I feel like Rory has given me a lot of freedom for me to be able to explain what I think and we talk as a team all the time about how we can best perform. So I don’t feel out of place. I’m not scared to talk on the field.”

For DiBernardo, the match held even extra significance since she grew up in the area and attended the University of Illinois. Several of her old college teammates surprised her by attending the match – “I could hear them,” she said about how she first knew they were there.

“I had a lot of fun and the assist and the goal are just a plus to the environment that was already fun to be in. I didn’t have a ton of expectations. Everything just exceeded what I thought it was going to be.”

***

The match was played at Toyota Park following the Chicago Fire’s match against the New England Revolution. With no alternate way to take attendance the Red Stars will be credited with the same number as the Fire—15,743. That is a Red Stars’ record and the 3rd largest crowd to date in NWSL. More important was how many stuck around to watch the women’s match.

“We had a pretty decent crowd,” DiBernardo said. “It was nice to see that some of the Fire fans stuck around. You could definitely hear the crowd going and fouls or anything like that you’d definitely get a response from the crowd.”

Chicago general manager Alyse LaHue was more than pleased with the doubleheader, a first for the Red Stars and Fire even though the Red Stars played home matches at Toyota Park in 2009 and 2010.

“It was a great day for soccer fans in Chicago. The Fire were tremendous in working with us to hold this double-header,” she said. LaHue added that scheduling will not permit another doubleheader in 2014, but that future seasons could include more. “It is something we will absolutely look at again in the future. This is only the beginning of what we hope is a long-term friendship with the Fire.”

Week 1 Takeaways

Here are a few soccer-related takeaways from Week 1:

— The Spirit looked much different with Yael Averbuch and Christine Nairn holding in midfield and Lori Lindsey replacing Renae Cuellar in the starting XI. Lindsey played attacking midfield, leaving Jodie Taylor alone up top. But the best player on the pitch was Diana Matheson, who not only scored two goals, but tore up the midfield and spent much time tracking back to disrupt FC Kansas City attacks. As a result Matheson earned my Player of the Week vote.

— As for FC Kansas City, early results are troubling as they do not look the same team without Desiree Scott in midfield as part of their revamped shape. It will be interesting to see if Jenna Richmond gets a start this weekend in Portland in what could be a return to the 4-2-3-1 that was so effective in 2013. That said, it is early and there are plenty of talented players in Kansas City.

— Don’t sleep on Courtney Niemiec. The Thorns’ rookie right back looked as if the experience of opening day did her a world of good. And she spent much time in the Sky Blue defensive third on Saturday. Only a miss by Jessica McDonald from in close prevented Niemiec from getting her first professional assist.

Attendance Watch

Chicago Red Stars: 15,743
Sky Blue FC: 2,983
Washington Spirit: 2,577
Boston Breakers: 2,018

Total: 23,321 (YTD, 39,852)
Average: 5,830 (YTD, 4,982)

Notes
— The Red Stars attendance was a team record and the 3rd-highest ever in NWSL
— Sky Blue’s attendance was their 2nd highest in NWSL

Free Kicks

— Jackie Santacaterina left the Red Stars’ match Saturday with cramps. She should be fine for the weekend against Washington.

— The Red Stars announced on Monday the signing of former University of Illinois forward Niki Read, their third Illini player on the roster.

— Nikki Phillips was awaiting test results on Tuesday after injuring her head and neck area near the end of the 1st half for FC Kansas City. She was subbed out even though there were only seconds left before halftime. That means it was immediately clear she had no chance of returning.

— Christie Rampone’s silence was well noted after the dismissal of national team coach Tom Sermanni. Saturday night she addressed the coaching change saying, “The philosophy obviously wasn’t what U.S. Soccer wanted and we’re just anxiously awaiting to see who that next coach is. For myself, I’m 38 and hoping the coach will call me in and want to give me that chance.” Rampone added that she was already scheduled to fly out by herself the following morning for a second opinion on her balky foot.

Asked about Sermanni’s philosophy she said, “His philosophy was very different. It was going to take time and I don’t know if we had that much time. I loved Tom as a coach. I played for him (with the 2003 New York Power). I had a very good relationship with him for the last 10 years. My heart definitely hurt seeing him leave. But it’s the World Cup. We need to be playing the best soccer we can and heading in the right direction. Hopefully the next coach that comes in will keep us right on target and ready to go.”

USSF president Sunil Gulati said he expects to have a coach by mid-May.

— My opinion:  Enough players have spoken around the issue that it seems there were more issues within the national team than most of us though. It does not make the timing any better, but it does look like there was a bit of disconnect.

— On the foot, Rampone says it’s a pain management issue and that she will be taking a little extra time off during the week.

— Every team last season had a player score two goals in a game except the Spirit. Diana Matheson became the first Spirit player to do so when she nailed two against FC Kansas City. That left the Dash as the only team not to do it, but Teresa Noyola took care of that a day later, getting her 2nd from the spot to lift the club to its first ever win. The only other NWSL team to have a player score twice after only two games was the Breakers last season.

— The first of many NWSL scheduling peculiarities has the Spirit traveling to Seattle for the first mid-week match of the season on Wednesday. What is odd is the Spirit will be playing on two days’ rest with travel while the Reign spent Easter weekend at home, idle. There are too many variables about the schedule to complain, but in this case the Spirit are far and away getting the short end. And they may have run some of their players ragged to beat FC Kansas City on Saturday. Crystal Dunn played beyond what her expected fitness level was and Robyn Gayle, who has been carrying a slight injury, looked tired after playing an outstanding opening match.

— The most hilarious image of the young season has to be Paul Riley’s face on a stick which was part of a large group that traveled from his Albertson Soccer Club on Long Island. “They asked if I saw my picture and I said no I don’t want to see it,” Riley joked.

— The last two remaining NWSL ironwomen both extended their streaks to 24 games and 2,160 minutes played since the league kicked off last year. CoCo Goodson went the full 90 for Sky Blue FC and Jen Buczkowski did the same for FC Kansas City despite needing some treatment for what looked like a bloody nose.

— The Dash showed some mettle, coming back in the last 10 minutes of their first ever road match — not to mention playing much of the night from behind after conceding in the 1st minute.

— Paul Riley on Amber Brooks: “Amber Brooks stepped up. She was atrocious last week and I spoke to her. She’s only 22 years of age. Everyone thinks she’s an experienced player but she’s only played a few games for Bayern Munich. Tonight I thought really settled her in. I thought she was very, very good. She popped in between the two center backs, got good rhythm on the ball. She won about 12 headers tonight. I think last week she won zero headers. So it was a much better performance.”

Brooks scored 10 goals in 21 games for Bayern.

— For anyone complaining about the Red Stars attendance figure, they played second so there was no other way to count it.

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