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Chicago, Kansas City Square Off in Playoff Opener

Playoff soccer at Toyota Park! No, really.

The Chicago Red Stars and FC Kansas City kick off the 2015 NWSL playoffs when they meet tomorrow afternoon at Toyota Park. Defending champion FC Kansas City enters the postseason with experience and momentum on its side. Despite some struggles down the stretch, the Red Stars have begun to rediscover the form that had them at the top of the table for much of the season -- Just in time for their first playoff appearance in the league's three-year history.

Press and LePeilbet. Two of the league's most efficient goal scorers...
Photo by Daniel Bartel | Courtesy of Chicago Red Stars

This will be the third meeting of the year between these two clubs, with Chicago claiming an edge during the regular season (one win, one draw). The first match was marked by numerous player absences due to the Women’s World Cup. With the Red Stars missing eight players and FC Kansas City missing five, Chicago came away with a 2-1 road win in May. The international players were back with their squads for the August rematch in Lisle, which ended in a 2-2 draw.

Last weekend, in their regular season finale against Houston (also played at Toyota Park), the Red Stars salvaged a draw thanks to last-minute heroics from Christen Press. Her late equalizer capped off an exciting game in which both clubs had numerous scoring chances. Chicago goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc was absolutely spectacular, making 10 saves in what may have been her final competitive match. In fact, her stunning performance earned her the NWSL’s Player of the Week award.

FC Kansas City had a barnburner finale of its own, edging Sky Blue FC 3-2 at Yurcak Field. The scoreline was a bit of a shock, as Kansas City had held its previous four opponents scoreless. They got the win, however, and wrapped up a tremendous regular season stretch run. FC Kansas City grabbed 14 points from its final 6 league games (4-2-0) with a goal differential of 11 over that span. In fact, the last team to score against them before the Sky Blue FC match was… Chicago.

Still, the Red Stars have not exactly set the league on fire in recent weeks. Over their final 10 regular season games, Chicago went 2-6-2. They scored only 12 goals during that stretch and surrendered 11. During the last few matches, however, the team has looked considerably better overall and generally much more dangerous on attack. Christen Press has a lot to do with that, certainly. The star forward ended up tied for second in the league with 10 goals. This total is even more impressive when you consider that due to the World Cup, Press made only 11 appearances for the Red Stars.

It’s a safe bet that stopping Christen Press will be FC Kansas City’s top priority tomorrow. Beyond that, the defending champions have plenty of reasons to feel optimistic about this game. FC Kansas City has been one of the hottest teams in the league over the past few months. They’re the second highest-scoring team in the NWSL and the second stingiest on defense. They get scoring from everywhere: 12 different players have scored for the club this season, and nine of them have done so more than once.

They also have a player who seems to be Chicago’s soccer kryptonite: Amy LePeilbet. The former Red Star and U.S. Women’s National Team defender has scored two goals in her entire professional career. Both have come this season. Both were against the Red Stars.

But what about Chicago? Should they also feel good about their chances? Absolutely.

For starters, they’re playing in front of a hometown crowd -- and a bigger one than they have behind them at Benedictine University. Interestingly, the Red Stars have never lost an NWSL match at Toyota Park, going 2-1-0 in their three previous outings. Chicago has also played very well against FC Kansas City in both previous matches this season. Perhaps most importantly, the Red Stars have Christen Press, who when on her game is arguably the league’s most dangerous goal-scoring threat. And she is very much on her game right now.

Chicago coach Rory Dames has been quoted many times saying that this season’s success is part of a three-year development plan. It’s doubtful that the plan calls for a first-round playoff exit, so look for a very confident Red Stars team to take the pitch tomorrow afternoon.

KEYS TO THE GAME

Christen Press
She’s on fire. Every opposing team knows that she's getting the ball and yet she just keeps putting it in the back of the net. For FC Kansas City to have any chance of winning this game, they need to keep Press off the scoresheet.

Amy Rodriguez
She hasn't gotten nearly the attention that Press and Washington's Crystal Dunn have, but ARod is quietly having an exceptional season. She led FC Kansas City in both goals and assists and, like Press, has only played 11 games. She’s the driving force behind the league’s second highest-scoring offense and Chicago will have their hands full keeping her quiet.

The Goalkeepers
Nicole Barnhart has been excellent for FC Kansas City all season, starting 17 games and racking up eight shutouts -- including four in a row during August. Chicago has put two past her in each previous meeting this season, however, so her ability to break that particular trend may be critical.

At the other end of the pitch, Chicago‘s Michelle Dalton has been the team’s most reliable keeper this season. In 12 appearances, the former University of Wisconsin star has five shutouts and only one loss. Before last week’s season finale, she seemed a lock to start in the playoffs. LeBlanc’s standout performance against Houston casts some doubt over this issue, however. Also, Coach Dames has been anything but predictable when it comes to naming his starting goalie (or entire lineup, for that matter). The smart money is still on Dalton here, but it’s a good problem to have when two keepers are in top form for a match of this importance.

Chicago’s Midfield
Despite big-name stars at the front (Press) and the back (Julie Johnston), it’s been the rock-solid midfield pair of Danielle Colaprico and Vanessa DiBernardo that has powered the Red Stars all season. With Lori Chalupny and Alyssa Mautz completing the central diamond, Chicago has one of the strongest midfields in the league. This group’s ability to both close down the FC Kansas City attack and unlock penetrating runs by Press (and whoever her strike partner ends up being) will likely determine the outcome of this game.

THE WILDCARD

Amy LePeilbet
Seriously, her knack for scoring against Chicago this season is uncanny. The Red Stars need to keep an eye on this wiley, late-blooming sniper, especially on set pieces.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

Chicago Red Stars: Dalton, Gilliland, Johnston, Erceg, Hemmings, Colaprico, Chalupny, DiBernardo, Mautz, Press, Hoy/Huerta*

* Huerta is listed as probable for the match, recovering from a knee sprain. If she’s not 100-percent at game time, Jen Hoy will likely get the start (and she might get it regardless).

FC Kansas City: Barnhart, Sauerbrunn, Robinson, Moros, LePeilbet, O’Reilly, Buczkowski, Tymrak, Holiday, Rodriguez, Hagen

ADDITIONAL NOTES

For either FC Kansas City's Lauren Holiday or Chicago's Karina LeBlanc, tomorrow’s match represents their last competitive match. Both players recently announced their retirements from club and international play. They will be sorely missed by the clubs, their fans, and the soccer community in general.

The game kicks off at 12:30pm (CT) on Sunday, September 12 at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, IL. Tickets are available via this link and parking at the stadium is free. --MER

Red Stars Host Dash in High-Stakes Finale

Chicago looking to lock down home-field advantage for semifinals

Chicago, IL -- The Chicago Red Stars and Houston Dash close out the 2015 NWSL regular season with a Sunday afternoon clash at Toyota Park. The game could have huge ramifications for the Red Stars’ postseason, as a win guarantees them a second-place finish and home-field advantage in the semi-final round of the playoffs.

Chicago needs to make sure Ella Masar keeps her shirt on this Sunday at Toyota Park

Last time out, Chicago turned in an impressive 2-0 road win against Western New York. Christen Press continued her red-hot run of form, scoring the first goal and setting up Jen Hoy for the second. Goalkeeper Michelle Dalton made five saves to record her fifth shutout, good for second-best in the league. It was a welcome result for the Red Stars, who had lost two and drawn four in their previous six outings. In order to host the franchise’s first-ever NWSL playoff game, they will need to build on that performance.

It will not be an easy task, despite the fact that Houston is already eliminated from playoff contention. The Dash boast a star-studded lineup, with U.S. Women’s National Team standouts Carli Lloyd, Meghan Klingenberg, and Morgan Brian all back with the squad. Up front, Kealia Ohai and former Red Stars Jessica McDonald and Ella Masar are a dangerous, high-energy attacking trio. So far this season, they’ve scored 12 of the team’s 20 goals. Masar has actually played most of the season at right back for Houston, but returned to her natural forward role and scored her first goal of the season in the team’s most recent match (a 1-0 home win over Boston). 

Houston’s defense has been up and down all season, but the return of Brian in the holding midfield role has stabilized things a bit. In goal, Canadian international (and another former Red Star) Erin McLeod has been solid, even spectacular, in her 10 appearances for the Dash.

This is the third meeting of the year between the two clubs, and the first to be played in Chicago. The teams battled to a 2-2 draw back in May, while the Red Stars won the second game 2-1 in July. Over the course of the two matches, Chicago outshot Houston 33 to 18. Rookie forward Sofia Huerta leads the way for the Red Stars, tallying both goals in the first game and a total of 10 shots through both.

Houston has nothing to lose, Chicago has everything to gain, and the lineups might make this look like an all-star game. So how does Chicago come away with all three points? 

CONTAIN ELLA MASAR
As previously mentioned, Ella Masar is back at forward for the Dash and playing extremely well. She was active and a constant threat in Houston’s win over Boston. She has also hinted at walking away from the NWSL at season’s end and is playing in her home state against a team for which she made nearly 60 appearances. It’s a safe bet that she'll be highly motivated for Sunday’s match. She will put continuous pressure on the Red Stars’ backline and will have a ton of support on attack. Chicago will need to contain Masar and avoid the turnovers she'll look to cause in order to win this game.

IGNORE THE RESULTS
Unfortunately, the NWSL enters its final regular season weekend with a staggered slate of games. Because of this, Chicago’s playoff fate may already be decided by the result of Saturday’s match between the Washington Spirit and Seattle Reign. If Washington loses or draws, the Red Stars automatically clinch second place and the all-important home playoff game. Hopefully in the future, the league will look to synchronize season finales in order to build (and promote) the drama of playoff chases. Until then, Chicago should carry on as if their playoff lives depend on this game.

In the table below, you can see how the league’s four playoff-bound teams have done since the start of July. Seattle and FC Kansas City are on fire right now, steamrolling into the postseason. The Red Stars (and Spirit), on the other hand, have been inconsistent down the stretch. Chicago looked much better in the last two matches (both against Western New York) and should look to build on those performances against Houston -- regardless of what happens on Saturday.

Standings of NWSL playoff-bound teams since July 1, 2015

WIN THE SUPERSTAR BATTLES
In the previous two meetings between Chicago and Houston, neither team had their Women’s World Cup players on the field. If they all play on Sunday, the lineups this time around will read like a Who’s Who of women’s soccer. The Dash will have their hands full trying to contain Christen Press, who continues to create scoring chances out of seemingly harmless situations. Press has nine goals in just 10 league games thus far and is a genuine threat to score every time she touches the ball.

Similarly, the Red Stars’ will be looking to neutralize Carli Lloyd’s impact on the game. Like Press, Lloyd can create a whole lot from very little, so midfielders Lori Chalupny and Danielle Colaprico will certainly have a busy time of it on Sunday. The same is true for Abby Erceg and Julie Johnston, who will look to nullify Lloyd’s aerial threat on corners.

As it’s in the team’s best interests to win this game, regardless of Saturday's Washington-Seattle result, our projected Red Stars’ lineup is: Dalton, Gilliland, Erceg, Johnston, Hemmings, Chalupny, Colaprico, DiBernardo, Tancredi, Huerta, Press

Chicago forward Alyssa Mautz missed the last match with an injury and her status for this game is uncertain. If healthy, expect her to take Tancredi’s spot in the lineup.

For Houston: McLeod, Klingenberg, Pressley, Allyscha, Brush, Brian, Machry, Lloyd, Masar, Ohai, McDonald

Kickoff for the game is at 4:00pm at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, IL. Need tickets? Get them here! --MER

 

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Red Stars Punch Their Playoff Ticket

Chicago clinches a spot in the postseason, Flash eliminated

Chicago, IL -- Another week, another draw for the Chicago Red Stars. This time, however, even a scoreless result against the Western New York Flash felt like a victory: With that single precious point, the Red Stars clinched a first-ever trip to the NWSL playoffs.

Photo by Daniel Bartel | Courtesy of Chicago Red Stars

It was a gorgeous day at the Benedictine University Sports Complex, and for the better part of 90 minutes it was also a gorgeous display of soccer dominance from the home team. The Red Stars controlled play from the start, generating a ton of quality scoring chances throughout the game. The attacking duo of Christen Press and Sofia Huerta was especially dangerous in the first half, combining for nine of the team’s 11 shots in the opening frame. Overall, Chicago outshot the Flash 15-5, but they simply had no answer for Western New York keeper Chantel Jones.

Both teams had their chances to score early in this match. In just the second minute, Chicago’s Press took possession of the ball 20 yards out, to Jones’ right. She calmly slid her way across the top of the box before firing a shot high and wide of the mark. Just one minute later, a Flash corner kick pinballed its way to the feet of Western New York attacker Jamia Fields, who touched the ball just wide of the Chicago net.

Later, on a Red Stars’ corner in the 16th minute, Abby Erceg headed the ball back across goal to Julie Johnston, who just missed heading it home. Western New York responded almost immediately, when midfielder Samantha Mewis found Fields breaking free down the right wing. The speedy forward tattooed a shot towards the upper near corner, but Chicago keeper Michelle Dalton punched it up and over the bar.

Despite a few more back-and-forth surges throughout the game, the Red Stars controlled play for most of the remaining 70-odd minutes. Though they never managed to put a shot past Jones, Huerta and Press wreaked all sorts of havoc on the Flash’s backline. In the 22nd minute, Huerta broke down the right side with Press in support. After a quick dish from Huerta, Press cut inside and angled a beautiful, 30-yard shot past Jones, only to see it curve a few feet wide of the far post.

Press had a number of other excellent scoring chances as the game progressed, and Huerta actually had two full-on breakaways. The first came in the 36th minute, when Chicago captain Lori Chalupny laced a brilliant pass to the wide-open forward, putting her one-on-one with Jones. Huerta tried to finesse a ball into the far corner, but didn’t get quite enough on the shot and Jones pounced on it for the save. Not five minutes later, Press sent Huerta in on goal again, but her powerful curling shot was thwarted by an acrobatic save from the Flash keeper.

The Red Stars continued to dictate terms after the break, despite having to shuffle their formation when right back Taryn Hemmings went down with what looked like severe leg cramps. Unable to continue, she was replaced on the back line by Chalupny, while Melissa Tancredi entered the game in midfield. Even with the change, the Red Stars were able to keep the pressure on the Flash, maintaining a fairly steady barrage of scoring chances.

In the dyIng moments of the match, Chicago eased the attack and seemed more than happy with a draw and that all-important point. Shifting from a 4-4-2 to a 4-5-1 (with late sub Jen Hoy alone up top), the Red Stars managed to kill off the last few minutes of regulation and stoppage time.

This was the eighth draw of the season for the Red Stars, who continue to lead the league in that category. For Western New York, the result meant that they will miss the playoffs for a second-straight year.

With a franchise-first NWSL playoff berth now in hand, the team can focus on building positive momentum for the postseason. In particular, Press and Huerta showed tremendous promise as an attacking pair, despite being shutout by Jones. Their chemistry (and goal tally) should only improve over the final two matches of the regular season.

Equally important: With two games left to play, the Red Stars still have a chance to secure home-field advantage for their playoff semi-final. The team currently sits in second place with 29 points, but FC Kansas City and the Washington Spirit are right behind them with 28 (Washington also has a game in hand). To host a semi-final, Chicago needs to grab as many points as possible in its final two regular season matches, while hoping for FC Kansas City and Washington to drop a few results along the way.

Next up: A rematch with this same Western New York Flash side, this time on the road in Rochester. The game kicks off at 6pm (CT) on Saturday, August 30. -- MER

 

Photo courtesy of Chicago Red Stars

Photo courtesy of Chicago Red Stars

RED STAR OF THE MATCH: LORI CHALUPNY

No shortage of fitting candidates here, as every Chicago starter turned in an exceptional performance. And even though Christen Press and Sofia Huerta rampaged all over the attacking half for most of this game, Chalupny’s performance deserves special attention. Not only was she a standout on attack and defense while roaming the midfield, she also took over at right back without missing a beat -- A stellar 90 minutes once again from the Red Stars’ captain.

 

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Red Stars Look To Snap Slide Against Flash

Both teams battling for playoff spots, despite recent struggles.

Chicago, IL -- The slumping Red Stars host the Western New York Flash on Sunday afternoon, with both teams increasingly desperate for a win. The two teams have struggled of late and are running out of opportunities to grab points as the postseason  beckons.

Western New York forward Michelle Heyman

Chicago enters the match on an uncomfortable six-game winless streak (0-4-2). After a heartbreaking 2-1 loss to the Washington Spirit in their previous outing, the Red Stars now sit in third place with 28 points. Still, they need only four points from their final three games in order to clinch a franchise-first NWSL playoff spot. They can also slip into the playoffs if the teams chasing them drop some points, but it’s safe to assume that coach Rory Dames would rather head into the postseason with some positive momentum.

Meanwhile, the seventh-place Flash are in a far more precarious position. They have won only once in their past eight games and have surrendered 17 goals over that stretch. They need at least seven points just to climb past FC Kansas City for fourth, but they also need Portland, Houston, and FC Kansas City to lose some games along the way.

It’s not clear whether the Red Stars will have their U.S. Women’s National Team players back for this match, but with so much at stake the club’s supporters certainly hope so. Having played in Chattanooga on Wednesday, it is likely that Christen Press, Julie Johnston, and Lori Chalupny will all be back with the team for Sunday’s match. The Flash will be without Sydney Leroux, who underwent season-ending surgery following the Women’s World Cup, and it is probable that midfielder Ashley Nick will miss the match as well. Nick suffered a particularly nasty injury below her right eye in the team’s previous outing, a 1-1 draw with Washington. Spirit midfielder Joanna Lohman caught Nick with an elbow as the two went up for a header.

Chicago’s Christen Press has proven that she can create dangerous scoring opportunities from nearly any situation. So aside from getting her the ball early and often, here are four other keys to this game for the Red Stars:

A TALE OF TWO KEEPERS.
Strong play in goal is always important, but with so many dangerous attackers on these two teams the keepers will have to be especially solid. The Flash’s Chantel Jones has been up and down in recent weeks. She was outstanding against the Spirit last time out, spectacularly robbing Crystal Dunn on multiple occasions and giving up only one goal on a whopping 15 shots. She was much shakier a week earlier against FC Kansas City, however, allowing four goals on nine shots. She also plays a very aggressive sweeper style, which fits Western New York’s high defense line, but occasionally finds her wandering too far from goal. Chicago should look to exploit this whenever possible.

For the Red Stars, Michelle Dalton will likely get the start and will have to be especially alert at all times: The Flash tend to fire shots from all over the attacking half, and they have a number of ball-hawking poachers who will pounce on any rebound in the box. Michelle Heyman, Lady Andrade, Jasmyne Spencer, Samantha Mewis, and Lynn Williams are all particularly deadly in the penalty area, so rebound control is absolutely critical for Dalton (and her defense), especially on set pieces.

MICHELLE HEYMAN.
Western New York’s leading scorer has only four goals (Lynn Williams), but they have gotten scoring from 12 different players so they have plenty of threats on the roster. None are more dangerous than newly-acquired Australian international Michelle Heyman, however. Like fellow newcomer Andrade, Heyman is exceptional on the ball in tight quarters. She generally plays a target role, sitting high and holding up play for her attacking partners, but can also run at defenders and create chances on her own. Her work rate is fantastic and she is generally involved in the play all over the pitch. If the Red Stars can keep Heyman contained, they will have a much easier time of it on Sunday.

CORNERS. CORNERS. CORNERS.
Thanks to excellent service (typically from Becky Edwards) and multiple targets in the box, Western New York is extremely dangerous on corners. All teams look to win and score on corner kicks, but the Flash thrive on these opportunities and the Red Stars must minimize them at all costs.

SHE WHO CONTROLS THE FLANKS…
Flash rookie left back Jaelene Hinkle is a speedy, attack-minded defender who looks to get up the flank as often as possible. She crosses well and also looks to pull the ball back to a trailer (typically to Mewis or Heyman). The Red Stars of course have their own attacking fullbacks in Arin Gilliland and Taryn Hemmings, both of whom feature prominently in Dames’ attack. Though the Red Stars must be mindful of Hinkle’s attacking threat, they should nevertheless look to push the flanks themselves as often as possible – and particularly when Hinkle is caught upfield.

Assuming the U.S. internationals are back and available, our projected Red Stars lineup is: Dalton, Gilliland, Johnston, Erceg, Hemmings, Chalupny, Colaprico, DiBernardo, Mautz, Hoy, Press

For Western New York: Jones, Hinkle, Engen, Taylor, Edmonds, Mewis, Edwards, Dahlkemper, Spencer, Heyman, Andrade

Kickoff for this game is at 4:0pm CT Sunday at the Village of Lisle-Benedictine University Sports Complex in Lisle, IL. The mid-afternoon match opens a 2-game, home-and-home series with the Flash, with Chicago travelling to Western New York on August 29. --MER

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Red Stars Hoping to Crush Washington Spirit

A pivotal match for both teams with the playoffs looming.

Chicago, IL -- Chicago hosts the Washington Spirit on Sunday to finally resolve the game that was so dramatically interrupted by storms in June. With only four games left to play, both teams enter this contest hungry for a win and a firmer grasp on a playoff spot.

Photo courtesy of Chicago Red Stars

The Red Stars sit in second place with 28 points, but have won only once in their past six games. Not exactly the sort of form the team hoped for in a quest for its first-ever NWSL playoff berth. Washington is only three points behind, clinging to fourth place while Portland, Houston, Western New York, and even Sky Blue FC remain hot on their heels. Deuces are wild for the Spirit over their previous six games: Two wins, two draws, two losses. Both teams desperately need to win this game, which should be one of the more intense and entertaining of the season.

Due to a pair of U.S. Women’s National Team “Victory Tour” friendlies sandwiched around the match, however, both squads will be without their World Cup players. The Red Stars will play without leading scorer Christen Press, defensive stalwart Julie Johnston, and captain Lori Chalupny. The Spirit lose star defender Ali Krieger and starting goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris. This actually sets the rosters much closer to what they were on the game’s original June date, since the World Cup players were also absent at that time.

With modified rosters and so much at stake, here are Chicago’s keys to the game:

STOP. CRYSTAL. DUNN.
There's really no mystery here. The Red Stars must keep a lid on NWSL scoring leader Crystal Dunn in order to have any chance of a victory. Dunn has been absolutely on fire this season, netting 12 goals in 16 games for the Spirit. She’s fast, she can dribble through entire defenses, and she fires a lot of shots on frame. Without Julie Johnston in the lineup, Chicago will rely on Samantha Johnson and New Zealand captain Abby Erceg to keep Dunn at bay. Expect the entire midfield to focus on trying to stifle service to Dunn, as well.

IMPROVED FINISHING, ESPECIALLY EARLY.
In nearly every game this season, the Red Stars have exploded out of the gate with a high press and numerous early scoring chances. The problem has been finishing those opportunities. Missing early chances and allowing teams to get back into games (or take the lead) late has been a recurring theme in recent weeks. There will be some serious pressure on Jen Hoy and rookie Sofia Huerta to rediscover their goal-scoring chemistry that was so productive earlier in the season.

KEEP SOMETHING IN THE TANK.
Fatigue has been a very real and very recognizable problem for Chicago in recent performances. After strong, arguably dominant starts against Portland and Sky Blue FC, the Red Stars faded towards the end of both games and settled for a single point from the pair. Capitalizing more efficiently early and managing effective substitutions late will be absolutely crucial for Chicago in this game - especially as the forecast calls for temperatures in the 90s with high humidity. It will not be a pleasant day on the pitch.

Coach Rory Dames has juggled his lineup a lot from game to game, but based on recent outings, World Cup absentees, and expected squad rotation due to the cramped schedule, the starting XI is likely to feature: LeBlanc, Gilliland, Johnson, Erceg, Hemmings, Quon, Colaprico, DiBernardo, Mautz, Hoy, Huerta

SPEAKING OF TANCS: Having looked so dangerous against Portland and sitting out against Sky Blue FC, it's possible that Melissa Tancredi will get the nod over Hoy (especially as the latter played a full 90 on Wednesday).

Projected Washington Starters: Wys, Reynolds, Oyster, Church, Johnson, Lohman, Nairn, DaCosta, Matheson, Ordega, Dunn

Both teams are hoping that the weather cooperates this time. The originally-scheduled game was suspended after only 18 minutes due to lightning. It was then delayed for several hours because of the ensuing storms. Play resumed around 10pm CT, only to be stopped again before the first half could be completed. It was eventually called off entirely, but not until after midnight.

The game kicks off at 7:30pm CT Sunday night at the Village of Lisle-Benedictine University Sports Complex in Lisle, IL. --MER

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Thorns Snag 2-1 Win Over Red Stars

Strong start, shaky finish spell the end of Chicago's six-game unbeaten streak.

Portland, OR -- The Chicago Red Stars entered Sunday's road matchup against the Portland Thorns riding a six-game unbeaten streak. After stumbling a bit in the second half, however, Chicago fell 2-1 to the suddenly-surging Thorns and now find themselves on a more dubious sort of streak: Only one win in their past five matches.

Photo courtesy of Chicago Red Stars

This is unfamiliar territory for the team that held the NWSL’s top spot for 10 consecutive weeks. After performing so well during the Women’s World Cup, despite missing a staggering eight squad members for the most of the tournament, Chicago has looked out of sync at times since reincorporating Christen Press, Julie Johnston, Melissa Tancredi, Lori Chalupny, and the rest of the internationals back into the team.

Still, things went well early on for Chicago. The Red Stars created numerous scoring opportunities, pressing high and peppering the Portland back line with deep breakout passes. Tancredi was particularly dangerous in the first half, narrowly missing a goal on a nearly-perfect chipped shot (setup beautifully by Julie Johnston). She came close again moments later, this time getting on the end of a perfect cross from Vanessa DiBernardo only to see her header gobbled up by Thorns goalkeeper Michelle Betos.

Alyssa Mautz finally broke through in the 29th minute with the most unlikely of goals. She appeared to be crossing the ball from the right wing, but it fooled everyone and arced its way over Betos and directly into the net. The play all started when Abby Erceg beat Portland’s Christine Sinclair in an aerial duel at midfield. The headed ball fell to Chalupny, and the Red Stars’ captain quickly touched it forward to a wide-open Mautz.

The chances kept coming for Chicago after the goal. Just a few minutes later, another great pass from Chalupny found Press slicing through the Thorns defense. She chipped a beautiful ball over a charging Betos, but it was cleared just short of the goalline by the backtracking Portland defense. In the 36th minute, Chalupny again found Press, who shook free of the Thorns defense and uncorked a powerful strike from the right that rang harmlessly off the far post.

After weathering so many missed opportunities by the Red Stars, the Thorns got back to level footing with a truly bizarre goal in the 38th minute. Tobin Heath worked free just outside the Red Stars' penalty area before putting a relatively harmless pass/shot in towards the Chicago goal. The ball was blocked by Erceg, who looked as though she was about to clear it when Red Stars keeper Karina LeBlanc came off her line to do the same. The two players collided and the ball rolled clear to Portland’s Allie Long, who calmly tapped it into the open net. It was a strange play, clearly resulting from a miscommunication between Erceg and LeBlanc.

Portland slowly took control of the game after drawing even. The Thorns' methodical buildup play and confident control in midfield turned the game in their favor. They applied more pressure and generated better scoring opportunities for most of the second half. At the same time, Chicago’s long ball tactics, which had worked so well in the first half, grew less and less effective as the game progressed.

After several good chances and long stretches of sustained pressure, the Thorns finally grabbed the lead in the 69th minute. Sinead Farrelly brought the ball to the edge of the Red Stars 18-yard box on a jailbreak attack for the Thorns. With four Portland attackers in support ahead of her, Farrelly slid a perfect square pass over to Allie Long. The Thorns’ all-time leading scorer took a touch and fired an unstoppable strike past LeBlanc into the bottom corner.

After falling behind, Chicago looked increasingly disjointed in possession. While individual players continued to make great runs and great plays, they often did so with little or no support. Frustration began to show and even Julie Johnston, who had an otherwise spectacular night on defense for the Red Stars, had a few moments in which she did not seem to be on the same page with her teammates. On one occasion, she went for a quick restart on a free kick, but caught her own squad by surprise and essentially gave the ball right back to Portland. Later, she actually went up over the back of Chalupny to win a header at midfield, clearly startling her captain.

And yet, the Red Stars had their chances to get back into the game. A last-ditch attack in stoppage time kept Portland under pressure and resulted in multiple excellent scoring opportunities. In the dying moments, Christen Press pulled off a jaw-dropping one-on-one move before firing a shot that required an impressive acrobatic save from Betos. Jen Hoy, who came on as a late sub, put a header just over the goal moments later. As it sailed over the woodwork, the final whistle sounded.

Despite the loss, Chicago remains in second place in the NWSL with 27 points. After winning only once in their previous 11 matches, the resurgent Thorns have now won three straight and are charging hard for the fourth and final playoff spot. With 22 points, Portland is actually tied with FC Kansas City for fourth, but trailing on goal difference.

Up next for Chicago is a midweek matinee game against Sky Blue FC, another team playing its best soccer in the final third of the season. Kickoff is at 1pm (CT) on Wednesday, August 12. --MER

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