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.
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
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.