There are two main reasons Rory Dames has been able to pull off the most significant, non-injury related personnel move of the 2017 NWSL season. One is that he found confidence in a center back pairing that allowed Julie Ertz to push into midfield. The second is that Danielle Colaprico is really good.
If you haven’t been following, the Red Stars have not lost in six weeks. And they’re doing it with 2015 World Cup All-Star Julie Ertz (then Johnston) pushed up out of her central defense spot and into the position previously occupied by that year’s NWSL Rookie of the Year, Danielle Colaprico. A wider, more attacking role has been taken over by Colaprico.
It was bold. And it is working.
Let’s get back to central defense. Ertz has been one of the league’s most reliable in the position since being drafted No. 3 overall in 2014 and being handed the keys as the organizer by Dames. It was no small decision to pull her out of the position that made her famous at the 2015 World Cup. Enter Samantha Johnson and Katie Naughton.
“Katie and Sam came in this year in really good form and have been really good,” Dames said. “The biggest surprises from the preseason to the start of the season have been the maturity of Sam and the level that Katie is playing at.”
Johnson was already a starter, a position she earned at the tail end of 2015 when the Red Stars concluded that they were conceding less with Johnson partnering Ertz than they were with Abby Erceg. That allowed the club to move Erceg and ultimately acquire Alyssa Naeher. Naughton was a rookie in 2016 and made a strong account of herself in spot starts due to Ertz being injured or with the United States.
Johnson and Naughton both spent the offseason in Australia playing for Melbourne Victory and Adelaide United respectively, and Dames credits both for “the work they did in the offseason to go down and play.”
The Red Stars also went much of the preseason without Ertz, who got married in March. The hidden benefit was that it forced Johnson and Naughton on the field together with no Ertz to lean on.
With confidence in Johnson and Naughton—Dames said the goal the Spirit scored last weekend was the first one this season in which he felt both center backs needed to be better—the freedom to move Ertz forward presented itself. Her physical nature and ability to win and distribute balls have always made her someone tabbed as a future defensive midfielder at the highest levels. But the Red Stars already had Colaprico holding down the fort on top of the back four.
“People look at Dani in the 6 and Dani’s actually really good in the air, but she is 5’2 or 5’3 so people targeted that area,” Dames explained. “So it was always going to be important to get more of a ball winner in that space. Julie going in wasn’t a surprise for us. We just had to wait for her to get here and do it.”
“It’s hard because I do like playing the 6, and I think I’ve had success there,” Colaprico said. “I feel like I’ve established my role there and now it’s more like can I add to my game and grow as a player and move to a different player?
“I think at the 6 it was like, ‘she can play the 6’ and now it’s more like, ‘Can she play more of an attacking role too, can she play anywhere in the midfield and be more versatile?’ I think that’s more of what Rory is looking for.”
Colaprico was an attacking midfielder at Virginia, but it is hardly unusual in soccer for great defensive players to be molded out of once great attackers.
“I don’t think people realize how good Dani is in the attack as well,” Dames said. “Dani is very dangerous around the goal. Dani strikes a very good ball with both feet. She’s got quick feet to get herself freed up to score. And she can deliver a last pass.”
Those qualities have been on display this season. Against the Spirit last weekend, Colaprico had two chances to score in the opening five minutes and was denied both times by Stephanie Labbe.
“It just adds another attacking quality to what we’re doing,” Dames said.
It is also important to note that the positions are not rigid. Against the Spirit, Dames pulled both center backs at the same time at which time he dropped Colaprico back to holding. And she and Ertz have flexibility within the games as well.
“Dani and Julie still have the freedom to interchange. Dani can still drop lower and Julie can go higher. They have the freedom to make those decisions and movements in the run of the game.”
A third element in the personnel switch, the one getting by far the least attention, is that it allows Vanessa DiBernardo to get higher in the attack. “The midfield has been doing great,” Colaprico said. “We’re all solid players, and we work really well together and feed off each other.”
The irony about the whole thing is that there have been too many times this season the Red Stars have carried the play and been substandard in the opponent’s 18-yard box, costing them either results or low-stress endings to matches.
“We’ve struggled a bit with our final pass and final third stuff,” Colaprico said. “It will come. We have the players to do it. I think we’re going to turn a corner the next game or two and we’ll really start creating chances and putting some goals away.”
The Red Stars’ next action is Sunday against Sky Blue, a team they have not lost to since joining NWSL. In a season with a very forgiving schedule format, the Red Stars are about to embark on one of the most grueling—and quite honestly, absurd—weeks of soccer since NWSL launched. It will see them go to Seattle for a Wednesday night match, and then to Orlando the following Saturday.
“Our coach has talked about, that would be a good time for some players who haven’t gotten a lot of minutes to get on the field because it’s hard to play three 90 minute games in a row,” Colaprico, who has never missed a start as a professional, said.
Added Dames: “The fact that we have the Sunday game and not the Saturday game was disappointing. I’m sure there was a reason it was done like that but it certainly wasn’t for the benefit of our team or with our players’ health in mind. So the most important thing for us is to stay healthy. Points are points and we’ll chase the points, but as long as we come out of it healthy, that’s all we’ll be looking for. We’ll turn it into a motivation and a positive force rather than feel sorry for ourselves.
“We’ll have to get some player rotation.”
At 5-2-2 sitting second on the table, the Red Stars have a bit of equity to play with ahead of the next three matches. Clubs already chasing the table—only the Spirit and Courage do not play midweek—will be under more pressure to expend their best players to get points. The Red Stars also know that being in the playoffs again is not the goal. The goal is to win in October.
“We’ve learned the last two years that how you get into the top four is what it is,” Dames said. “Once you get into the top four, usually whatever team is in the best run of form or whichever team has the most belief in themselves and each other are usually the teams that grind out those results. With the way the league is set up, as much as everybody would love to win the Shield, the only benefit to winning the Shield is you get a home game, and you get to tell everyone you were the best team over 24 games.
“I think our group is mature enough to understand that it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
NWSL Attendance Update
|Portland Thorns FC
|North Carolina Courage
|Seattle Reign FC
|Sky Blue FC
|Chicago Red Stars
|FC Kansas City
Thorns: Steady as she goes in Portland where the Thorns continue to lap the competition in terms of attendance. They are a touch off last year’s pace but tend to draw a huge number or two late in the season which should be enough to give them growth for a fourth year running.
Pride: If we’re still looking back to Phil Rawlins’s prediction that they would draw north of 10,000 every week, they’re a disaster. If you look at the fact they have established a barometer that is above the league average, they’re doing okay. Splitting the difference, it feels like newish team, new stadium, and Marta should combine to have their numbers should be higher.
Dash: Toughest team to read because of how empty their stadium always looks (this dates back to when the Dynamo were announcing MLS sellouts). All accounts were that the first night start of the season did wonders for the atmosphere. A few wins might help also.
Courage: Impossible to read, but there is a feeling the numbers are lower than most outside the club were expecting. Yet it’s easy to forget that on January 1 of this year, the Courage literally did not exist. If they grow from here, it will be considered a decent start.
Reign: Attendance has crept forward each season in Seattle. It also picks up in the summer. But the current figures are off by enough that they aren’t like to make up the difference. Consider that in four home dates they have to have a single game match the averages from either of the last two seasons. No team can move forward every year but considering the soccer culture in Seattle it’s a bit of a head scratcher at the moment.
Spirit: The toughest team to analyze. Off-season tumult clearly chased away portions of the fan base. The addition of Mallory Pugh clearly added new fans. Time will tell if those fans are just curious kibitzers or future die-hards. Their current average would be the lowest in the team’s five seasons but I’m expecting a rise through the summer.
Breakers: Considering the Breakers added seats and Rose Lavelle and have not had any start times affected by Lifetime, attendance at Jordan Field has been very disappointing. Is the losing finally beginning to chase fans away?
Sky Blue: The feel-good attendance story of the year is unfolding in New Jersey where Sky Blue are the only team currently ahead of 2016. Only Sky Blue and the Thorns (plus the league as a whole) are averaging above their all-time average. If they can maintain the current average their all-time number will be north of 2,000. That’s not much by the standards of many clubs but would be a major milestone for this one.
Red Stars: Hard to look at Red Stars attendance as anything but a disappointment. The move to Toyota Park has not had a positive effect at the turnstiles. Winning and star power are not the issues. What is?
Kansas City: A promising start has devolved into a bit of an attendance disaster in Kansas City where it is fair to question how much the new ownership group is doing to promote the product. Relations have frayed with Sporting so there won’t be any games at Children’s Mercy Park to aid the season average.
News, notes, and nuance
-There is not much to say about Tony DiCicco that has not already been said. He was a great coach, a great soccer mind, and always willing to do his part to move the game forward. And in all of the times I ever spoke to him or heard him speak to others, I never once got a sense that Tony DiCicco had any agenda outside of what was best for his players and soccer in general.
-Did not vote for Player of the Week but would have leaned Sam Kerr over Marta. Neither pick would have been wrong though nor would have Camila.
-I’ve heard a lot of people say the high number of home-and-home series this season is a “cool feature.” Personally, I can’t find one single positive about it.
-It’s time to be worried about Tobin Heath’s future. Back injuries are tricky and hers has lingered enough so that she was getting close to playing and then shut down for at least 45 days.
-The Breakers are starting to look like they did in 2016…and that’s not good.
-Rosie White won’t play this weekend because of yellow card accumulation which won’t help in Boston. And it’s hard to gripe when a forward gets five cards in nine matches. But heading into last week’s match she was facing a string of 15 matches where any card for any reason would have gotten her sat down (accumulations don’t carry over so the last game of the season would have been a freebie.) And that’s just absurd. For the 80th time, let’s get some kind of make-good policy to expunge yellow cards. Please.
-The Pride have won two straight and are playing their best soccer maybe ever. But they still struggle mightily closing out games. They’ll eventually pay for that.
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