For two seasons now, the Red Stars have been the close-but-no-cigar team in NWSL. In 2013 they overcame a dull start to play inspired soccer down the stretch but their late rally was good only as an occasional spoiler.
Last season they started strong, but a lack of goal scoring and an adjustment period when several key players returned or joined the roster. Now in season three, the feeling around the Red Stars is that the time to join the top four is now.
“We don’t have any excuses this year,” coach Rory Dames said.
The Red Stars did not suffer too many departures in the offseason. Among them were backup goalkeeper Taylor Vancil and defender Kecia Morway, who were among the early retirees. Jackie Santacaterina and Julianne Sitch are also gone, while former No. 1 pick Zakiya Bywaters will miss the season after hip surgery. Michelle Wenino is still around but she got married during the offseason and now goes by Michelle Lomnicki.
“I think we’re pretty good through all four lines,” Dames said. “Karina is Karina. The back line is basically back intact and had a great year last year. We have Shannon (Boxx) back healthy this year, I think (Alyssa) Mautz will have a big year, and (Danielle) Colaprico will be a good addition for us. So I think the midfield line was probably where the question marks were last year. I think it will turn into a big strength this year. And then between Christen (Press) and Melissa (Tancredi), and Jen (Hoy), and Sofia (Huerta) there is a very serviceable front line with a lot of different qualities involved. So I’m excited about that too.”
Dames might be pleased with his lines, but all of them will be interrupted by the World Cup, which will take eight of the Red Stars’ current 18 players, including the only goalkeeper, LeBlanc. The club will add two more players including a goalkeeper ahead of its opener, which like last season comes a week after everybody else’s.
While the World Cup players are away, the Red Stars will be leaning heavily on Jen Hoy and a talented group of rookies. Hoy was the main offensive cog last season during a five-match win streak and has renewed energy after an offseason program geared to prevent her from breaking down. The rookies include Colaprico, Huerta, and defender Arin Gilliland.
Another returning player who will offer stability is Vanessa DiBernardo, a 1st round pick in 2014 who managed to fly under the radar in the face of an outstanding crop of rookies.
“To Vanessa’s credit, she was out the four months prior to preseason last year recovering from the knee,” Dames said. “Vanessa has come in with a completely different confidence level and fitness level. I don’t think it’s a matter of her having to fill a bigger role, but she’s capable of filling a bigger role. And she wants to fill a bigger role just because she’s capable of it.”
World Cup Questions
If Dames is pleased with all four of his lines it is with good reason, since parts of all them will be at the World Cup. The biggest loss will probably be in goal, where promising backup Taylor Vancil stepped away from soccer over the winter, leaving the No. 2 spot in flux. The club will also lose Julie Johnston and New Zealand captain Abby Erceg, who could wind up as the best center back tandem in NWSL. And Press is on the verge of becoming one of the most dominant scorers in the world.
But one thing the Red Stars have is experience playing short-handed. Last season Erceg and Press came late and Boxx spent a good part of the season rehabbing from knee surgery. Dames believes the transition is part of why the team tripped up in the middle of its season. But it is also what makes him confident the team can adapt during the World Cup.
“When the World Cup is going on, our players are going to play as a group and different people are going to step up each game and deliver different things that we need,” he said. “And I wholeheartedly believe in those guys.”
The Red Stars were handed few favors when the original allocations were handed out in January 2013. They decided to embark on a three-year plan that Dames and the club hopes culminates in a playoff appearance this September. And he seems prepared to navigate the waters that will get rough for all of the teams as the World Cup approaches.
“There were a whole lot of pieces being introduced last year and we’ve kept a lot of continuity this year,” Dames said. “We don’t have any excuses and I don’t think we’ll go through a lot of highs and lows. We know exactly who we are and what we need to do and I think the roles have been defined. When we have the luxury of having the national team players we know who we are, and when we don’t have the national team players we know who we are.
“I’m very happy with the group and what we’ve done. We still have some things to put together. But when we get the other players in next week and we can fine tune it all, I’m pretty excited about it.”
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