Even before the season started, head coach Rory Dames knew the Chicago Red Stars were in for a rough start.
Julie Ertz and Casey Short came back from international duty in March with injuries. Sam Kerr missed the first four games of the year while helping Australia qualify for the World Cup. Vanessa DiBernardo and Yuki Nagasato picked up injuries during the preseason, and newcomer Rosie White started the year recovering from off-season surgery.
Still, the beginning of the 2018 season went fairly well, with the team picking up seven points from its first four contests while implementing a new 4-3-3 formation and emphasizing possession much more than in the past. The team also got healthier as the spring wore on with Ertz, Nagasato, and White returning to the fold and Kerr returning from qualifying.
However, the team has stagnated of late with only five points in their last seven matches. And Saturday, the wheels seemed to fall completely off the cart with a 5-2 loss at home to the Orlando Pride.
“I feel bad for the players because I know how hard they’ve worked, especially this last week, and I know how good everybody felt coming into the game,” said Dames, speaking with the media after Saturday’s match. “If this one needs to get put on anybody, this one can get put on me. We just conceded five goals at home. The players had a good week of training; they’ve been doing what we’ve asked them to do.
“If somebody scores five on you at home and you had a good week of training, that can’t go to the players. That’s got to go to the staff and I’m in charge of the staff, so clearly whatever it was that we thought would give us some chances to be successful just didn’t work today. Like I said, you’ve seen me after games unhappy with players or performances, and that’s just not the case. We were out-coached in what went on in the game and they were able to do what they wanted to do and we couldn’t really prevent them from doing it. We had a hard time doing any of the things we wanted to do, and it wasn’t due to the players’ lack of effort.”
The players themselves echoed Dames’ frustration with Ertz commenting, “Super-frustrating. I don’t think we’ve lost, or at least conceded, five goals in a home match [before], so that’s obviously not something that we’re proud of. Our quality just wasn’t there.”
Goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher offered a similar assessment, saying, “Frustrating is an understatement, especially halfway through the season now. We need to figure out ways to be better.”
The move to a 4-3-3 this season has forced everyone in Chicago to adjust, after years in Dames’ preferred 4-4-2 diamond. However, the coach acknowledged over and over this past off-season the need to change and adapt after three straight years of making the playoffs but failing to earn a single appearance in the NWSL Championship.
In the second half against Orlando, Chicago switched back into its old 4-4-2 for the first time in 2018. In its former system, the Red Stars found an equalizer, but then quickly gave two goals back to allow the Pride to run away with the match.
Ertz dismissed the changes as the cause for the team’s problems and insisted the players simply need to be better, especially in their defensive responsibilities.
“Whatever formation, we have to figure it out,” said the midfielder. “That’s not on the coaches, that’s on the players.”
Chicago’s recent dip has surprised some observers. The team’s roster is largely the same from past years, one which saw terrific success in the regular season for the past three seasons. Yes, Christen Press has moved on, but the team acquired Sam Kerr—the league’s 2017 MVP and Golden Boot winner—this off-season, as well as Nikki Stanton, who has provided important minutes in the Red Stars’ midfield this year.
“We basically returned our entire core intact, so there wasn’t a lot that had to get put together,” Dames acknowledged. “We’ve tried to change some things, and I think there’s been moments in there where we’ve looked really good and then there’s moments where Sam’s completely isolated.
“We probably need to take a step back and figure out who we are. I think we’re probably caught between thoughts because in the past we may have lost, but we definitely wouldn’t have conceded as easily as we did today.”
The coach also argued that the team needs to find a way to keep its old mentality, which typically kept games close through a high work-rate and tight defending, while still trying to build a team-structured attacking concept and open up the offense enough to avoid relying on one player to generate the attack—as they often did with Press.
“If we’ve learned anything over the last three years, [it’s that] you can’t try to rely on one player if you want to win the league,” said Dames.
The Red Stars’ skipper said the team too often tries to force balls into Kerr, rather than seeing the space she’s opening up for her teammates. The team has also struggled with figuring out how to best utilize Kerr and Nagasato together, at various times playing one central and one wide and, at others, playing Nagasato underneath Kerr.
Heading forward, however, the team still has plenty to look forward to. Despite Saturday’s result, the team is only three points out of a playoff spot with 13 games to play. The team should also get Short and DiBernardo back after the June international break.
Dames explained his first job as the team nears the midpoint of the season is going to be re-emphasizing the team’s focus on defending.
“We’re going to have to figure out how to defend first and foremost and go back to our roots and our DNA of who we are and what we’re about,” he said. “Once we start figuring out what that looks like, then we can start to work up through the lines going higher.”
“I think we have strong leadership within the group,” Dames added. “We have some big players coming back into the group. We have a lot of players that have gotten experience early on that will benefit us down the stretch. We’ll have to find our way and put it together and give it a go. Nothing in this league gets decided until the last eight games.”
“I just think we have to kind of regroup and refocus,” argued Naeher.
“Back to the drawing board,” said Ertz.
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