After an upset of the Portland Thorns last week, the Chicago Red Stars had an opportunity to win the NWSL Championship in Louisville on Saturday. In the title game, they faced the Washington Spirit, who defeated OL Reign to get there.
Each team entered the match looking to secure their first NWSL crown. The Red Stars aimed to bring another championship to the Windy City a month after the Chicago Sky did. However, they were without key leaders Julie Ertz, Kealia Watt, and Alyssa Naeher due to injury.
The game started off with solid chances from Andi Sullivan and Emily Sonnett of the Spirit and Mallory Pugh of the Red Stars. In the 13th minute, the already depleted Red Stars lost Vanessa DiBernardo to an injury. Chicago had to use an early substitution for Makenzy Doniak to replace DiBernardo.
Through the first 30 minutes, the match consisted of chances by both teams from outside the box that didn't really test the goalkeepers. In the 31st minute, Washington's Andi Sullivan crossed a ball into the box that was headed by Tegan McGrady, who just missed the net. The Spirit continued to apply pressure but couldn't convert their chances to break the scoreless tie.
In the 45th minute, the Red Stars lost their MVP runner-up Mallory Pugh to injury. Despite first-half adversity, Chicago struck first when Rachel Hill headed one home off the foot of Arin Wright late in the fourth minute of stoppage time.
The Red Stars led 1-0 at the break.
Before the half even started, the Red Stars had to use their second substitution to bring Danielle Colaprico in for Pugh.
Right out of the gate, Washington responded with reinvigorated energy. The Spirit had two of three chances from inside the box, but Cassie Miller's goalkeeping kept the sheet clean. Then, Washington rookie Trinity Rodman went on a tear, attempting three of her eight shots within minutes of each other while finding scoring pockets all over the Red Stars' defense.
In the 67th minute, Tierna Davidson tripped Andi Sullivan, resulting in a penalty shot. Sullivan hit it low off her right foot and Miller guessed the correct side, but the ball trickled under her left hand bringing the score to a 1-1 tie.
As played continued the rest of the half, the chances continued to favor the Spirit. Chicago looked emotionally and physically drained with their bench depleted by injuries. The Red Stars could barely get the Spirit's defense backpedaling, and when they did, the scoring attempts were soft.
The Spirit continued to push the pace to start the first half of extra time. Seven minutes in, Trinity Rodman crossed the ball into the box for Kelly O'Hara to put away, which give the Spirit a 2-1 lead.
Outside of a free kick that resulted in an easy save, the Red Stars did not have much offensive energy.
In the second half of extra time, the Red Stars put together a better effort. They shifted their scheme to incorporate their defenders in pushing the attack. While Chicago started to generate scoring chances of their own, they left themselves exposed to counters.
In the 117th minute, Doniak had a breakaway that gave the Red Stars a glimmer of hope. But Spirit keeper Aubrey Bledsoe responded with the save of the game, blocking the hooking left shot. Shortly after, Kalyn Johnson had a clean look to tie the game but her shot just barely sailed wide. The Spirit weathered the Red Stars' late offensive storm to secure the title when the final whistle blew.
The Red Stars put up a strong fight despite being as beat up they were. The club has several good pieces to build on for next season, and they should be proud of what they achieved this year.
Overall, A Successful Season
The Red Stars’ run to the final certainly makes this 2021 season a successful one. Especially when thinking of the tough breaks the Red Stars had to endure.
Long-term injuries to midfielder Julie Ertz and goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, both key players, crippled the Red Stars at times. This led to Chicago barely scrapping by into the NWSL playoffs to begin with.
Mal Pugh, the team’s most valuable player this season, faced injuries of her own before having to miss the semifinal due to COVID-19 protocols.
Kayla Sharples missed the semifinal alongside Pugh, in addition to the final, which Kealia Watt also missed due to injury.
All of that was dwarfed by the alleged racism involving Sarah Gorden and a Houston Dash security guard after the first match of the season.
So, with that all being said, the Red Stars must keep their heads held high. Yes, the taste of defeat in a final for the third year in a row will be a tough pill to swallow. But Rory Dames and his team must certainly be proud.
I’m assuming all fans are too. This one certainly is.