Heading into the international break at the end of August, the Chicago Red Stars are on a three-game losing streak, including defeats at the hands of the Orlando Pride and Sky Blue FC—the two teams at the bottom of the table in the National Women’s Soccer League.
That’s a rough stretch for a team pushing for its fifth straight appearance in the league playoffs and head coach Rory Dames decides to give the team five days off before resuming a normal training schedule.
Returning from the break, Chicago beats the Houston Dash 3-0, kick-starting a five-game winning streak to close out the season. The string of victories not only earns the Red Stars another berth in the NWSL playoffs, but also lands the team in second place and playing semifinal host for the first time since 2015.
The key in the match that night against Houston is the resurgence of holding midfielder Danielle Colaprico. For the first time in a long time, she looks like herself again.
Speaking with the media after the match, Dames said, “That was the best Danny’s played all year—by far.”
But it turns out the key to Colaprico’s resurgence at the tail end of this season wasn’t taking the week off before the match against Houston to get some extra rest—like most of her teammates did. In fact, it was just the opposite, as she opted for extra training sessions over the international break with assistant coach Craig Harrington.
“At first, I thought, ‘Okay, I haven’t been home yet. I should go head home and see my family,” Colaprico told The Equalizer. “But then another part of me was thinking this is a good time for me to work on the things that I need to work on to be the best soccer player I can be this season because I don’t think I’ve had the greatest year, at all. That was bothering me.”
“I just thought it was a good opportunity for me to take advantage of the four or five days the team wasn’t here that I could just go out with [Craig] and work on the things I needed to do to turn my season around,” she added. “It was the best decision I made all year.”
Colaprico’s off-season was far from normal, and she came into the NWSL season both exhausted and injured. After heading to Australia to play in the W-League for the third winter in a row, she received an e-mail—on the day she landed—that she was in the picture for the United States women’s national team camp in Portugal in November.
That meant shortly after a 20-hour, 9,000-mile flight across the Pacific, she would need to pack up for a 30-hour, 11,000-mile trip to Europe. She then repeated the process in January for the U.S.’ games against France and Spain, meaning that by the time she arrived back in Chicago for the 2019 preseason, she had not only earned her first national team caps and helped Sydney FC win the W-League, but had also traveled somewhere north of 70,000 miles and through over 60 time zones in just a four-month period.
For comparison, the circumference of the earth is just under 25,000 miles.
In March, Colaprico missed the SheBelieves Cup roster because of a groin injury, which also killed off any chance she had at making a late run at the U.S.’ World Cup roster. Then, a knee injury popped up.
Despite the exhaustion—and the knocks to her body—she continued to play for Chicago through the spring, but couldn’t manage to bring her form back to its previous levels. In the summer months, trying to push through the pain and help the Red Stars with their World Cup players away in France, Colaprico looked like she was only being held together by a combination of will power and kinesio tape.
For their training sessions during the August international break, Harrington designed a series of drills to help Colaprico refocus on the skills that had always been among her greatest strengths—receiving the ball, hitting her outlet passes with precision, and some agility work to get her quickness dialed in. Colaprico says the training also provided a bit of a mental tune up, after she had struggled to stay engaged early in the season.
Now she’s back at 100% for Chicago, something Harrington calls “massive” for the Red Stars’ playoff push.
“She’s able to fill space and gaps that other players can’t,” he said. “I think she’s one of the best creative players in the league. Look at creative players that can get on the ball and dribble, the quality that she has that she can play quick passes, two-touch, she can receive it, turn, pass it through people. Her passes can take four, five, six opponents out of the game. That’s important in our offense about creating opportunities for open play.”
“She also has that ability to support the backline and come get the ball from deep,” Harrington added. “She’s definitely a link in the spine of our team that any team in the world would love to have.”
This winter, Colaprico won’t be heading back to the W-League, which she says will be tough because she prefers playing games and team training sessions compared to working out on her own. Still, she doesn’t regret what happened last winter and says everything worked out in the end.
Sunday’s match against the Portland Thorns will be the fifth semifinal for Chicago in five years. And although the Red Stars have yet to advance to an NWSL final, Colaprico thinks they have what it takes this season.
“In my opinion, I do think we have the best group, the best team in the playoffs. I think for us, it’s just staying healthy, getting all of our best players on the field. We are in a rhythm, so it’s important for us to get all those players back on the field playing together again because that’s when we’ve been at our best this season.”
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