It was with a mix of curiosity and bemusement that Rory Dames accepted my call early Monday. The Chicago Red Stars’ head coach had become a hot topic in National Women’s Soccer League for some post-match comments in the aftermath of Saturday night’s 3-2 loss to the Portland Thorns.
Chicago Red Stars head coach Rory Dames on last night's goals against: pic.twitter.com/nfbG4QvuS6
— John D. Halloran (@JohnDHalloran) April 1, 2018
“I stand by it 100 percent,” Dames, the only original NWSL coach still with the same team, said Monday. “I got asked about what happened on the goals, and that’s what happened on the goals.”
Many observers concluded that Dames was referring to Sofia Huerta, and indeed I was part of the speculation brigade during this week’s episode of The Equalizer Podcast. In standing by his comments, Dames reasserted that he never mentioned any player by name.
“I think it’s important that I didn’t call out any player,” he said. “If I wanted to call out a player, I would have used the player’s name. People can speculate on who it is. I couldn’t care less. That has nothing to do with me. If I wanted to call somebody out, I wouldn’t do it through the media. But that’s good. It’s good to keep the women’s soccer people engaged.”
Therein lies the duality of Dames using his postgame press conference to chide his team a bit. In the aftermath, it is certainly fair to take a deeper look at a team that has been frustrated at the same semifinal level three years running and which is now dealing with a cataclysmic set of injuries. It is also fair to ask the question: Has women’s soccer evolved enough to handle this sort of thing?
On the podcast, my colleague Claire Watkins suggested we should stop short of applying gender lines to the scenario, and she added that not every element of more successful leagues needs to be copied by the likes of NWSL as it strives for any sort of firm footing. Both are terrific points, but it still strikes me that American women’s soccer continues to operate with a high level of public sensitivity.
“I think the NWSL fan base is a very loyal fan base to teams and to players, and they’re very protective of the players,” Dames said. “And it is the third league, and women’s soccer is constantly battling to be relevant and survive. So when somebody takes a stern approach, everything is not all unicorns and rainbows, that’s the kind of response you get.”
As for what sort of effect, if any, that his comments will have on the Red Stars, only time will tell. In Mark Parsons’s first opening day as coach of the Washington Spirit in 2014 — a 3-1 loss to the Western New York Flash — his first postgame comment was about how his club’s body language after conceding was unacceptable. The Spirit wound up as a team that often ground out results, and a year after a last-place finish, found themselves in the playoffs. On the other side, then Houston Dash coach Randy Waldrum tried to win a battle of public opinion with Carli Lloyd following the 2016 Olympics and never recovered, losing the locker room and eventually his job.
Neither of these are direct comparisons, because Parsons made very general comments about his team and Waldrum went directly into battle with not only his top star, but a player notorious for being sensitive to criticism.
I’m not of the opinion that Dames speaking the truth about giving away sloppy goals is all that big of a deal — or if it is, that it isn’t something the club can move past. Asked if everything in the locker room was okay, Dames said, “Yes. Of course.”
This is definitely a year of change for the Red Stars. Their three consecutive semifinal losses gave Dames enough pause that he shuffled his coaching staff and decided to install a new system. He said the excitement level in the team is as high as it has ever been, mostly because of the possibilities that lie ahead with the new 4-3-3 setup.
“We lost 2-1 in the semis two years ago, and the first goal was off of a corner,” Dames said. “And we lost 1-0 in the semis last year, and the goal was off of a corner. So it is a big area of emphasis for us. If Lindsey (Horan) goes up and makes a great play on a ball and goes over our mark and gets a head on it, then so be it. But on those two occasions (last weekend), the mark was lost with no real intent to get back to it, and we paid the price twice.
“The reality of it is that that’s simply not good enough. If that offends people or hurts feelings or makes people upset, then so be it. It doesn’t make anybody as upset as the last two years when our season has ended and corner kicks have played a big role.
“I’m not worried about what people outside of my locker room think about what I say or how I do it.”
Lost in the cacophony of the postgame press conference is how much better the Red Stars played against the Thorns than a week earlier in Houston. Dames pulled Arin Gilliland out of her usual outside back position to put her up top and inserted Sarah Gorden at left back.
“Arin’s always been one of our best one-v-one players going at people,” he explained. “Sometimes it makes sense to have her come from lower, and sometimes it makes sense to have her higher. With the injuries we have and trying to get different people onto the field, it just made sense to push her higher into that space this week.”
Gilliland going to the front line allowed Summer Green to shift central, and it was Green’s hard work there which led to the Red Stars’ opening goal. Going forward, Dames said tactics and available personnel will dictate where Gilliland lines up.
Ultimately, the Red Stars long-term success this season is tied to players who have yet to take the field. Casey Short is probably the best individual defender in NWSL. Julie Ertz is capable in multiple midfield roles and has been on the league’s Best XI as a center back. Samantha Kerr won’t play for the club until the conclusion of the Asian Cup. Yuki Nagasato and Stephanie McCaffery are also among those yet to appear in a match this season. Dames had little to offer as far as return dates for any of them. The Red Stars next visit the Utah Royals, where they will play party to the club’s first match at Rio Tinto Stadium.
“I thought the overall performance of the group in the game was good,” Dames said of the loss to Portland. “There were huge strides over what we did the previous week.”
NWSL Attendance Watch
– At 19, Mallory Pugh is not quite a finished product, but her performance late in Saturday’s Spirit victory over the Orlando Pride is proof that she is already capable of doing special things to leave her imprint on any given game. If you want to see a small sample of her brilliance, check out the run she made to collect the ball in the buildup to the Spirit’s second goal. Kudos as well to Meggie Dougherty Howard for the vision to see it and the touch to place it on a dime.
– Friday night is the best I have seen Houston goalkeeper Jane Campbell play, and you have to wonder: If club form is meaningful, could she get the start for the United States on Thursday over Alyssa Naeher and Ashlyn Harris?
– The attendance numbers above are quite skewed due to the Red Stars’ season-opening doubleheader with the Chicago Fire. For some context it was the third doubleheader with the others having been in 2014 and 2015. Of the three, Saturday had the lowest attendance but according to John D Halloran this is the first time the Red Stars have taken home a portion of the gate.
– Skewed averages or not, opening matches in Portland in Utah in two weeks should see the league average go up again.
– The handball call against Joanna Lohman on Saturday was far worse than the one against Becky Sauerbrunn a week earlier. The only reason it didn’t make it higher in the news cycle is that it was neither a penalty nor did it lead to a goal.
LAULETTA: What is a handball, anyway?
– Stephanie McCaffrey got sick at a particularly bad time, since you have to figure she would have been a big part of the Red Stars’ attack in the absence of Sam Kerr and Yuki Nagasato.
– Mark Parsons served an automatic suspension Saturday for being dismissed after the whistle of the Thorns’ opening game in North Carolina. As it stands he will serve another, which was added on by the NWSL Disciplinary Committee stemming from his interaction with the refereeing team. The strange thing about this is that no one seems to know exactly what happened. The Thorns have appealed the second game.
– Abby Dahlkemper’s record streak of consecutive minutes is up to 5,760. Yes, you can expect this here each week until the streak ends.
– Katie Naughton is getting close to being the second-best uncapped American defender in NWSL. Emily Menges is first.
– Rory Dames more or less confirmed that the wind was not to blame for Alyssa Naeher attempting to play out of the back more than driving kicks downfield.
– This feature by Jamie Goldberg in the Oregonian, on Thorns owner Merritt Paulson, is a solid read. It is a story that will only grow in importance as long as NWSL lives on.
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