As she prepared to pack up for Chicago and her rookie season in NWSL, Sofia Huerta had made arrangements to spend the summer living with a fellow Santa Clara graduate in the area. A phone call from head coach Rory Dames changed all that.
“Rory called me and said, ‘I think you’ll regret that. You’re going to want to be with Gilly and Dani,’” Huerta recounted.
Gilly and Dani and Arin Gilliland and Danielle Colaprico, who along with Huerta were all drafted by the Red Stars earlier this year. After the prodding from Dames, the trio became roommates. Six months later they are all intricate parts of the club’s first NWSL playoff berth. They also each count the other two among their best friends in the world.
“We all hit it off really great,” said Gilliland, the first of the trio selected at No. 8. “I couldn’t have asked for a better setup for my rookie season.”
All three say that the discussions around the house are often focused on soccer, especially straight after training. Sometimes they even have to remind each other to talk about things besides soccer.
“Going home and being so comfortable and being able to just relax without making awkward convo or anything like that is just great,” Colaprico said. “You can kick back and hang out with your best friends on the team. That’s one of the best parts about it.”
On the field, the chemistry held up just as well as it did at home. With each of them playing on a different line they promptly made a major impact as the Red Stars opened the season with only one loss in their first 14 matches. Colaprico started every match in a holding midfield role. Gilliland took up residence as the regular left back. And Huerta, a striker, was at her best when the club needed her most, scoring six goals with three assists during the eight matches when Christen Press was at the World Cup.
“We were pretty excited about getting all of them,” said Dames, who has enjoyed three successful drafts in as many NWSL seasons. “We kind of knew what kind of role all three would play. All three of them had exceptional seasons.”
All three impacted the Red Stars in their own ways. But it was Colaprico’s ability to possess and distribute the ball in deep areas that allowed the club to morph from a physical, counter-punching team to one able to build the ball up the field more methodically.
“Last year they played a totally different style of soccer” Colaprico said. “We wanted to open up the flank for Arin and we wanted to find Sofia’s feet up top and we wanted Sofia to take people on. My role in particular was to try and find the ball from my teammates more and try and keep possession. This year we focused more on possessing the ball. I don’t think they did that much last year from what I’ve heard.”
The style may have been less direct, but Dames’ praise of Colaprico’s role in the new style was very much direct. “Dani’s been able to change basically the entire style that we play because of her technical ability and her ability to get us in and out of stuff.”
As a left back, Gilliland perches herself as high up the field as any outside back in the NWSL. By her own description, Gilliland is “in a position of very high risk, high reward.” It is a style that can reap tremendous benefits but also requires cooperation from her fellow backs and certain midfielders in order to keep it from becoming a liability.
“I don’t think you can avoid being exposed defensively,” Gilliand said. “But this team does a good job of shifting our back line over to cover. And our outside mid whenever I go forward, usually Rachel (Quon), slides into that outside back position for me. So I do get exposed a little bit but I feel like I have the capacity to get up and down that line to defend.”
The 22-year-old Gilliland added that there is sometimes more caution to her play than meets the eye. “If it’s not completely on then I won’t go every time. I pick and choose my moments to go.”
Dames is happy enough to have Gilliland cover virtually the entire left flank. So long as opposing teams are not getting comfortable in her defensive space, Gilliand’s ability to overlap can severely alter how the Red Stars are defended, and can open up important spaces for the forwards.
“Arin’s been able to cover basically an entire side of the field for us, which has made us a bit more dynamic and put other teams a little bit on the back foot,” Dames said.
In Sunday’s playoff game at Toyota Park against FC Kansas City, Gililland will find herself jockeying for position on her flank with her opposite number, Blues’ right back Leigh Ann Robinson. It is a scenario and a match-up that Gilliland relishes, and whichever of the two is able to spend more time attacking could go a long way toward determining which of the Midwest clubs advances to the NWSL Championship.
“I actually love when that happens because it turns into a 1-v-1 battle between me and that outside back the whole game,” Gilliland said. “It’s just who can get forward and who can get back the quickest. That’s the game I like to play. I think I’m more of an athletic player than a really, really good soccer IQ player so for me that’s like a dream come true.”
Specifically to Robinson, Gilliland said: “She’s actually an outside back that I really look up to and shape myself around.”
Huerta arrives at the playoff stage of the season in a bit of a different position than her roommates. For one, she does not have a goal or an assist since Press returned from the World Cup. More importantly, she spent a few days last week thinking her ACL was torn.
“Four doctors thought that I tore my ACL,” she said, the result of a freak play in Western New York when her body went one way but her knee took some time to catch up (she remained in the game). “I got the MRI and it wasn’t torn. It was pretty crazy.”
After sitting out the Red Stars’ season finale, Huerta was cleared for play earlier this week and should be available against FC Kansas City. And the 22-year-old Idaho native is confident she can have an impact on what will be the biggest match the Red Stars have ever played.
“I can’t tell you why I haven’t scored since (Press) has been here,” Huerta said, insisting that chemistry playing up top with Press is not an issue. “I know I’m going to score in the semi and when we win in the final. It’s bound to happen eventually. Forwards are always hot and cold. Hopefully I can get that goal.”
And while Huerta’s production might be down, Dames is quick to point out how vital she was during the World Cup. “Sof carried us for a while. She got hot and basically put us on her back.”
If Huerta starts on Sunday, it is more than likely that five of the 11 starters for the Red Stars will be top-11 draft picks from the last two NWSL drafts. Then there is Cara Walls, a depth player, who was the No. 23 player taken in 2015. Jen Hoy is also a key cog after being the first pick of the fourth round out of the Ivy League in 2013. It seems that Dames and his staff have a knack for identifying college players that are able to make near immediate impacts on the league level. (In 2014 he drafted Julie Johnston and Vanessa DiBernardo at No. 3 and 4, respectively. On opening day, DiBernardo assisted on Johnston’s goal in a 1-0 win.)
“I don’t think it would be fair to say that any of them exceeded our expectations,” Dames said. “I think very similar to what we did with Julie and Vanessa last year, all three came in, we gave all three a role and empowered them to be successful in it. Credit to them, all three of them ran with those roles.”
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