2014 NWSL Preview – Chicago Red Stars

Projected Early Season Lineup (Questionable Starters in Parentheses)

Projected Full Strength Lineup (Questionable Starters in Parentheses)

Two steps forward, two steps back for Chicago, who are probably wondering if they’ll ever be whole by this point. The Red Stars were very hard done by before a ball had even been kicked in anger in 2013. With a glut of defensive midfielders, the club traded away Keelin Winters but also lost Amy LePeilbet through injury before the season and Shannon Boxx to injury early in the new campaign. Couple that with unproductive Canadian and Mexican allocations (other than Erin McLeod), the club’s two international German signings not arriving until midseason, and top pick Zakiya Bywaters missing most of the season through injury, and you had a recipe for disaster.

It didn’t quite end up that way. Head coach Rory Dames proved to be a very astute judge of young talent, with all the rookies besides Bywaters contributing in a big way. Add in a Herculean performance by Lori Chalupny up front and a pragmatic but effective gameplan, and you had a Chicago side that probably defied many predictions of a season at the foot of the table. They didn’t have enough juice to get to the playoffs, but with two first round picks in this year’s draft joining players returning from injury and some other big additions, it’s hard to not be optimistic about the Red Stars going into 2014.

The biggest addition though is of USWNT forward Christen Press, the type of big time goalscorer the club has needed since its birth in WPS. Press has dazzled earlier as a rookie in WPS and over in Sweden, where she’s lit up opposing defenses with regularity. The problem? Press joins up at midseason, meaning the club will be without its biggest weapon for potentially a third of the campaign. Add in LePeilbet being jettisoned without ever playing for the club, Taryn Hemmings working her way back from injury, Shannon Boxx still getting match fit after having her first child, and Leslie Osborne’s retirement, and you’ve got…a typical Red Stars season really. Except this time, they may have enough talent to be in the playoff race by the time they’re whole at midseason.

Coach/Tactics

Rory Dames was called upon to pick up the pieces of an underachieving Red Stars side as they dropped down into WPSL and WPSL Elite after their unsuccessful WPS stint and helped oversee the club’s run of success in the lower tiers of competition. It was hardly a shock then that Dames was tasked with overseeing the club’s rise back up the ladder in the NWSL. Long a fixture with the local Eclipse club in Chicago, Dames proved a nice judge of young talent last season, with late round draft picks like Jen Hoy and Taylor Vancil doing very well for themselves. Dames also did a creditable job in knowing his team’s limitations and setting them up in a fashion in which they were very rarely overrun. It didn’t always make for compelling spectacle, but it did keep Chicago in games more often than not.

Frustratingly, Dames may not be able to be more proactive at the beginning of the season with the club already thin on numbers defensively through injury. Taryn Hemmings looks set to miss the beginning of the season, meaning any mystery in Julie Johnston’s position has been cleared up early. Who plays beside her is still more up in the air though, as the main contenders may be converted full-back Michelle Wenino and Jackie Santacaterina, who is coming off hip surgery herself. With Boxx out, the club may be using Julianne Sitch as the defensive midfielder, itself not really an ideal fit. The defensive problems have really had a knock-on effect throughout, as Wenino, a potential starter at left-back, may be replaced by Kecia Morway, an undrafted camp invitee. Hemmings’ arrival should allow Wenino to slide back left, but you’d hardly argue with the club signing another defender or two.

The situation is thankfully a lot more bearable in attack, even without Christen Press for a while. Jen Hoy looked a dangerous center forward late last season and will likely be ably supported by Adriana Leon and Zakiya Bywaters on the flanks. It could also open up space for Lori Chalupny and Vanessa DiBernardo in the center of the park. Ideally, the club would probably prefer the duo to be closer to goal in a 4-2-3-1, but if Leon’s playing on the left flank, that’s probably a no go. When Leon’s gone though, the club may well shift that way, with Chalupny as the left-winger and DiBernardo central in the #10 role. With the club short on true defensive midfielders though, how they’d organize the rest of midfield is a big question mark. Press figures to slot right in at center forward upon her arrival. How the club plans to blood Melissa Tancredi in is a puzzle. She’d seemingly work best in a 4-4-2 partnered up with Press up top, but that wouldn’t necessarily play to the club’s strengths, as a central midfield pairing of Chalupny and DiBernardo without a midfield fulcrum behind them for support. Regardless, Dames is still probably happy to deal with a glut of offensive options for once.

Goalkeepers

Before the arrival of Sonja Fuss to stabilize the backline last season, Erin McLeod was often the one paying the price for her defense’s indifferent form. The Canadian’s form naturally improved as the back four’s did likewise, with McLeod appearing to be firmly entrenched as her nation’s #1 heading into the 2015 Women’s World Cup on home soil. She’ll be foe rather than friend this season for Chicago however, as the club shipped her to Houston in January, part of a carousel of goalkeeping movement around the league.

Her replacement for the Red Stars is compatriot Karina LeBlanc, made redundant in Portland after the acquisition of Nadine Angerer by the defending league champions. LeBlanc obviously needs as much playing time as possible before 2015 if she’s to hold out any hope of dislodging McLeod, and the distinct possibility of backup duty for the Thorns under Paul Riley after suffering a similar fate in WPS with Philadelphia was probably too much to bear for either party. LeBlanc was able to bay back accusations that she was past it during the Thorns’ title winning season, though she wasn’t immune from the odd frustrating error. Given some of the early season worries with so many defenders coming off of injuries, LeBlanc will likely have to be at her best if Chicago is to repel some of the league’s better attacks in the opening weeks of the season.

There were some that wondered if second-year keeper Taylor Vancil was ready to ascend to the #1 shirt in Chicago this season, but Rory Dames will likely be content to leave that question unanswered for another season. Eyebrows were raised when the Red Stars took Vancil in the 2013 draft after an uninspiring collegiate career, but Dames was vindicated by the rookie’s form in cameos last season when McLeod was away. She still showed her youth at times though, and another season as the Red Stars’ understudy in goal certainly won’t hurt. If Vancil continues to grow, it’s hardly out of the question that she could be the club’s first choice here in 2015.

Defenders

Uh oh. This group was looking a bit questionable as was before Casey Short suffered another season ending injury and Lydia Vandenberg was announced to be taking 2014 off. Now? Short was probably going to be penciled in at left-back after the club traded for her with Boston who had been unlucky to see her go down with an ACL injury shortly after being drafted by the Breakers. Now, the most likely option seems to be old hand Michelle Wenino, who’s approaching veteran status with the club after WPSL Elite and NWSL stints but who lacks the athleticism to be anything more than a capable fill-in at this level. Given the club’s struggles in developing center-back depth, she might be needed in the middle come the beginning of the season.

The other option springing to mind would be using Rachel Quon on the left, with Taryn Hemmings moving from center-back to right-back. Hemmings is coming off an ACL injury herself though, and it remains to be seen if she’s retained the mobility to be effective on the flank this season. In all honesty, Quon’s the only player in this backline close to being a sure thing. The newly minted Canadian international probably isn’t ever going to be a superstar at this level, but she could have a long career at this level based on her sheer competence at both full-back spots, a very rare trait indeed. She’ll likely be missing a few games if she stays in the frame with the Canadian WNT though, leaving the team scrambling for more full-back depth. Swiss army knife Julianne Sitch can play on either side, and though listed as a midfield/forward tweener on the official roster, she might be asked to fill holes as needed at full-back.

Centrally, you’d think things would be better, and they might be. If everyone’s healthy. The problem is the likely top three on the depth chart are all coming off major injuries and surgery. Hemmings has been an attacker, a full-back, and last year, a center-back as a pro. The powerful Denver alum had formed a very stout partnership with the since departed Sonja Fuss in the middle of defense but tore her ACL late in the season, a big blow to the Red Stars backline which had begun to look like a solid unit. If she’s able to make a recovery from said injury, Hemmings again could be a key on the backline for Chicago.

Valuable reserve Jackie Santacaterina is herself coming off of serious hip surgery in the offseason after a rather impressive season that saw her score two goals against Sky Blue FC late in the season. The Illinois alum is another valuable firefighter for the Red Stars, versatile enough to cover many positions, though it’s hard seeing her not being needed as center-back cover this season. Hip injuries aren’t exactly minor things though, so the club will be hoping Santacaterina gets back up to speed quickly.

Julie Johnston played center-back at U20 level for the U.S. but is ideally used further up the pitch thanks to her offensive ability. Dames might not have a choice early in the season thanks to injuries though. A key figure at center-back for the U.S. U20 World Cup winning team of 2012, Johnston ended her college career with another sterling season for Santa Clara and is at least on the fringes of discussion for the 2015 USWNT World Cup squad after being capped with the full squad in 2013. While Johnston impressed in defense at youth international level, her offensive exploits in college showcased her ability in attack with the ball, as she often played on the frontline this past season with SCU. She’ll probably find a happy medium at this level as a defensive midfielder with some serious offensive potential, especially in the air, but for now, she’s needed at the heart of the defense.

With the gap in numbers, exacerbated by the trade of Amy LePeilbet late in the offseason, the Red Stars unsurprisingly signed up some of their more impressive camp invitees. Left-back Kecia Morway should be a familiar face to die hard Red Star fans having played for the club in their WPSL days, as well as with Dames during his days coaching the Eclipse club. She won a national title with Notre Dame as a freshman before turning in a solid end of career turn with Colorado College later. Given Dames’ history of developing raw, young talent you’d bet on Morway to be solid as a rookie here.

More of a surprise was the signing of USC alum Samantha Johnson. Johnson had come into Los Angeles with her fair share of hype as a U.S. youth international but was another disappointment for an underachieving Trojans side. An attacker for much of her collegiate career with USC, Johnson’s probably due a switch back to full-back here. I suspect she’s more of a long-term project for Dames though. The good news is, the Red Stars’ boss has shown an affinity for making such projects work out in the end.

Julianne Sitch is as versatile as they come as well and may be an option at either full-back slot. Lori Chalupny can also play left-back if needed, though one imagines she wouldn’t exactly be thrilled at the prospect. Given the rather shaky state of the defense early on while Hemmings gets healthy, it’ll be all hands on deck if the Red Stars are to not be put to the sword by opponents.

Midfielders

Flux is a good way to describe the state of the Chicago midfield right now. It was a good way to describe it last season too. Shannon Boxx missed almost all of last season through injury, as did right-winger/forward Zakiya Bywaters, both hammer blows considering Boxx was one of the few internationals expected to make a big impact here at season’s beginning, while Bywaters was the overall #1 pick in the 2013 rookie draft. The upheaval didn’t end with the end of last season either, as the club itself waving farewell to Leslie Osborne, with the classy vet hanging up her boots after a distinguished career for both club and country. She was ever-present for the Red Stars last season as well, finishing second on the team in overall minutes played.

One thing that isn’t about to change is the club will again run through the immensely talented Lori Chalupny. Though Chalupny’s international career is almost definitively over after lingering disagreements on her past concussions, her club career has continued to flourish, last year almost single-handedly dragging the Red Stars towards the playoffs. A willing facilitator, finisher, and bulldog in midfield, Chalupny should again be one of the league’s very best players and is a real dark horse in the MVP race, especially considering she should be with the Red Stars all season. The only question is whether Chalupny will be playing centrally or on the left flank given some of the club’s new additions.

Everything else around Chalupny in midfield is getting a major makeover though, as the club made use of its first two draft picks in this past year’s rookie draft on highly touted prospects Johnston and Vanessa DiBernardo. DiBernardo herself got a brief taste of the USWNT towards the end of her college career with Illinois but perhaps did not enjoy a senior season to remember after missing a significant chunk of time with a sprained knee. The injury plagued 2013 campaign with the Illini wasn’t enough to dissuade Chicago from using one of their first round picks to keep the local product close to home though. DiBernardo was another of the U.S. U20 team starlets who brought home gold in 2012 and will be looking to add more to her trophy haul this season with Chicago. The interplay and cohesion between DiBernardo and Chalupny will be key, especially early when the club is missing Christen Press in attack.

Depth here looks reasonable though not particularly outstanding. Alyssa Mautz continues to be one of the league’s most volatile attacking players, capable of some spectacular moments in front of goal but not with the consistency needed to gain trust as a full-time option in the starting lineup. She should again be a very potent option off the bench as one of the league’s best super subs, able to also fill in if need be due to international call-ups. With few other recognized offensive options in midfield in reserve, Mautz’s form could be crucial.

Veteran warhorse Julianne Sitch found herself on call for eighteen starts last season and figures to see time out on the flanks this season again for the Red Stars withe central midfield seemingly well accounted for. Sitch is versatile enough to play on either flank, and that flexibility could be crucial throughout the season with some players on the backline coming back from major injuries, while others like Rachel Quon may miss multiple games through international duty when all is said and done. Sitch can also fill in in the center of midfield when needed, though the club looks to have plenty of options there.

The big wild card is how much the Red Stars can possibly get out of Shannon Boxx, who spent almost all of last season out injured. Boxx also just had a child and was still working her way back to match fitness in the middle of the preseason. While a comeback to make the USWNT Women’s World Cup team in 2015 would be an exceptional story, the odds of a successful return to international level are long. At club level at least, Dames has to be hoping he can get the veteran back to effective form. Even if she can’t go ninety minutes, Boxx would still be a great option off the bench to help shut games down if she can still contribute at this level.

If DiBernardo can play up to her potential quickly, this could be one of the better midfield units in the league. Given the volatility of form for youngsters making the leap to this level, that’s far from a given.

Forwards

Red Stars supporters have long been pining for a true star center forward after an amalgam of bad luck and underwhelming performances through multiple leagues. Last year was probably more of the former, as Chicago found itself not allocated a first class forward, with most of the hopes resting on gambles that didn’t pan out like Jessica McDonald and Inka Grings or internationals that just didn’t produce. The result was an inconsistent goalscorer by committee approach and a clearout in the offseason that has seen Maribel Dominguez, Grings, and Ella Masar all depart, joining the likes of McDonald, who was jettisoned midseason.

The overriding hope was that Chicago would be allocated a top forward in the offseason to make up for their underwhelming haul last year, and prayers were answered when it was confirmed that Christen Press would be coming to town. Be it with magicJack in WPS or Goteborg and Tyreso in Sweden, Press has scored goals for fun throughout her young professional career and also looks like a key part of the future for the USWNT. It is indeed perhaps her hopes for sticking on the 2015 WWC roster that Press has chosen to come back stateside, though she won’t be getting here until Tyreso is eliminated from the Champions League (or wins it). That could create some anxiety in Chicago, as her stand-ins until she arrives aren’t exactly the most consistent or proven bunch.

Until the club sees Press arrive mid-season, the Red Stars will likely be banking on continued improvement from Canadian allocation Adriana Leon. Leon began her professional career being allocated to Boston but arrived via trade in the middle of last season. She found herself in the Red Star starting lineup more often than not after arriving, but the Canadian showed little in front of goal, netting just once in eight hundred minutes of play. Leon has seemingly shown much better for country than club thus far, but Dames will have to be hoping that the Canadian can hold down a starting berth on the left flank with limited other options to fill that position. Leon doesn’t seem the type to be a club’s alpha dog in attack though, so Chicago may have to wait for Press’ arrival to truly get the best out of the former Notre Dame and Florida player.

The Red Stars will also be counting for more from Jen Hoy who happened to be a major surprise for the club down the stretch after arriving midseason following concluding her studies at Princeton. Hoy had set the Ivy League alight as a senior in 2012, but few could have expected the late draft pick to score three goals in just nine appearances, an impressive return for a player few probably expected to make a major contribution in half a season as a rookie. Until Press arrives, there’s a good chance that Hoy will be leading the line up front with the Red Stars already rife with wing forwards. With a full preseason camp under her belt, the former Princeton star could be one of this year’s breakout players if she can replicate last season’s late year scoring form.

That last year’s #1 overall pick in the rookie draft, Zakiya Bywaters, is being mentioned this far down in the Red Stars’ attacking personnel overview probably should give you a hint as to how her 2013 season went. Bywaters going #1 overall was a shock in the first place, but the UCLA product didn’t exactly have much time to prove a point, as she missed all but six games of the season through injury. Bywaters finishing with just two goals in a lost rookie season probably wasn’t what the club expected when they took her last season in the draft, and the pressure will be on to live up to that lofty billing this season. You’d expect her to be a contender for a starting slot on the right wing from the get go, and it’ll be interesting to see how she gels with the revitalized attacking core Chicago is bringing to the table this year.

Also arriving in June to some fanfare is Canadian international Melissa Tancredi. Initially allocated to Houston and former college coach Randy Waldrum, Tancredi was promptly traded north to the Red Stars in exchange for Erin McLeod. The burly Canadian, like Press, won’t be arriving until mid-season as she finishes up school commitments. Unlike Press, Tancredi hasn’t played consistently at club level in two seasons, since a stint with Dalsjofors in Sweden, where she scored two goals in five appearances. That was in the Swedish second tier, and a run of zero goals in fifteen appearances with Saint Louis in WPS in 2009 doesn’t exactly fill you with optimism. She’s been markedly more effective at international level, but you wonder how quickly she’ll gel with the Red Stars considering she’s not due to arrive until mid-season. If she does acclimate, she could form an intriguing “thunder and lightning” partnership with Press.

The Red Stars also used a late draft pick to take Maryland forward Hayley Brock. Brock settled into a role as main goal getter for the Terps as an upperclassman, though her side’s rather disappointing season may have hurt her draft status a bit. Her usage numbers were about middle of the road all the way around, but Dames has shown a great eye for young talent thus far in his stint as Chicago boss. Given the absence of Press and Tancredi early, Brock should certainly have a chance to win some major minutes in the Red Star attack. Whether she can keep those minutes later in the season is another matter entirely.

Alyssa Mautz is a bit of a tweener but could be thought of as a forward with a certain mindset from Dames, and the A&M alum’s goals might be needed early in the season if other options are misfiring. It isn’t likely, but Taryn Hemmings and Julie Johnston also have experience in attack and could be used in an emergency, though both are likely needed elsewhere. On the whole, this group has a ton of potential on paper, especially with Press arriving, but now it’s a matter of proving it on the pitch.

Outlook

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. The Red Stars lost valuable ground while waiting for Sonja Fuss and Inka Grings last season, though injuries also left them far from full strength at times. It looks like a similar tale this season in some ways, with Press and Tancredi arriving midseason and Hemmings battling for fitness after her torn ACL last season. Chicago found out the hard way that it’s very tough to chase points if you’re in a hole early, meaning the Red Stars will have to grit their teeth and scrap for points until they’re at full strength if they want to reach the playoffs.

Offensively, the Red Stars look like being able to do that if the frontline gels, with the promising Hoy and Leon here for the whole season, hopefully joining a healthy and revitalized Zakiya Bywaters. Add Chalupny and DiBernardo ruling the roost in midfield, and the Red Stars should be formidable in attack, even before Press gets here.

On the other side of the ball though, the club could be in a real state of bother until Hemmings is fit, with either the very ordinary Wenino or Santacaterina likely to partner Johnston in central defense. If it’s Wenino, that might mean a starting role for undrafted rookie Kecia Morway, hardly an ideal circumstance for a team chasing the playoffs. But Dames made things work better than expected in adverse situations last season. He’ll have to do more of the same early here if the Red Stars are to break their playoff duck at this level.

Projected Finish: 5th

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