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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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