NWSL Preview 2015 – Chicago Red Stars

Projected Full Strength Lineup

Possible Lineup During Women’s World Cup

Other Previews/Projections

1st – Seattle
2nd –
3rd – FC Kansas City
4th – Portland

5th – Sky Blue FC
6th – Washington
7th – WNY Flash
8th – Houston
9th – Boston

In the end, Chicago came up just short of the playoffs, losing out to Washington for the final spot on head-to-head, as the Spirit proved to be perfect foils for the Red Stars, topping them in all three of their meetings in 2014. It was another disappointing setback for a franchise that continues to try and finally make the breakthrough to the postseason. At second place in the goals allowed table, the Red Stars certainly had the defensive part of the game figured out, but a seventh place finish in goals scored underlined the club’s inconsistent offense, seemingly a hallmark for the franchise.

The Red Stars have always seemingly had the long game in view though, and they made a big move in the draft to gain one of Boston’s higher picks through trade. The trio of Danielle Colaprico, Arin Gilliland, and Sofia Huerta come highly regarded and may finally be the ticket to this club being something more than just a spoiler for the league’s bluebloods. Rory Dames has been patient in helping to build his team for the future, with little turnover in the way of players and has what looks like a settled roster as a result. But Chicago also, unthinkably a few years ago at the start of the league, has a good many players missing for the Women’s World Cup. Dames will be banking on his eye for talent being an acute one, as many of those young players are going to have to live up to their billing for the club to finally break its playoff duck.

Coach/Tactics

Blessed with a great eye for young talent and ability to get the most out of that talent, Rory Dames will enter 2015 with real pressure for perhaps the first time in this job. The playoffs are expected of the Red Stars thanks to the talent he has been able to accrue, and his side were desperately unlucky to miss out on the postseason in 2014. While roster turnover has disrupted almost every other side in the run up to the new campaign, Chicago has stayed mostly intact. Add in some shrewd drafting, and the Red Stars have one of the league’s deepest teams on paper.

The question may be more about style than substance. Dames’ teams have played, shall we say, uncompromising football over the first two seasons of the NWSL which has drawn the ire of neutral fans and some opposition, as well as the wrath of the disciplinary figures of the league at times. While it’s perhaps a bit much to expect these Red Stars to soften their ways overnight, you wonder if the drafting of technically proficient players like Arin Gilliland and Danielle Colaprico isn’t a signal that Chicago is going to try and be a bit more aesthetically pleasing in 2015. That may be something of a moot point early in the year though as Dames tries to survive the WWC, when the Red Stars are especially hard hit.

Defensively, there’s little to worry about in Chicago. Julie Johnston and Abby Erceg are going to be one of the league’s best center-back duos when here, while there’s plenty of cover with Samantha Johnston and Taryn Hemmings also strong options. There are enough talented center-backs on the roster that Dames may consider going to a 3-5-2 system while pushing the full-backs into a wing-back position, while Johnston could also move into a defensive midfield role with Erceg being flanked by either Johnson or Hemmings (or both) on the backline. Full-backs Arin Gilliland and Rachel Quon should provide width. Quon is probably the weakest link on the backline, but if that’s the case in Chicago, they’re a lot better off than most of their rivals, as Quon’s a very solid player.

The one big criticism of Chicago is that they probably don’t have enough steel in midfield, especially during the WWC. Shannon Boxx could conceivably play that role upon her return, but there’s no telling how much the WWC will take out of her, with ninety minutes a match unlikely over the long haul. Johnston is the best option of course, but she may also be needed at center-back. I’d argue 3-5-2 is almost as likely as 4-3-3 if the club is looking to cram three central midfielders onto the pitch thanks to the clubs glut of defenders, but making use of Lori Chalupny and Danielle Colaprico out wide to stretch play seems like a better plan. Vanessa DiBernardo may play the #10 role, even when Chalupny returns. Colaprico’s versatility should be invaluable, as she can play just about everywhere in the midfield and looks like switching flanks when right-sided Alyssa Mautz likely comes in during the WWC.

Chicago has plenty of forwards to call on when at full strength. It’s likely Christen Press + one or two. Melissa Tancredi showed she can still score at this level last year but is aging and will be coming off a heavy international workload, though her skillset complements Press’ quite nicely. Sofia Huerta and Jen Hoy will likely get the most opportunities to impress when the internationals are away and could win themselves a starting role throughout the season if they can impress early.

Goalkeepers

Chicago’s goalkeeping situation was thrown into turmoil by the retirement of backup Taylor Vancil, who was to inherit the #1 role for much of the season with Karina LeBlanc away for international duty. Vancil had shown signs of promise in her first two seasons in the league, and her retirement shortly before preseason was ill-timed to say the least considering the Red Stars hadn’t drafted a potential replacement in January’s draft or made a move to bring in a replacement that was available like Aubrey Bledsoe.

The sudden lack of a long-term replacement here is even more worrying considering the fact that current #1 Karina LeBlanc is thirty-four years old. LeBlanc probably isn’t going to be winning matches on her own at this point and is a clear #2 behind Erin McLeod for Canada, but she still has enough in the tank to be a reliable #1 when available. It’s that “when available” qualifier that’s going to be the kicker though. LeBlanc is going to miss most of the early part of the season with Canada in preparation for and at the Women’s World Cup and will also likely miss time if selected for the Pan-American Games roster, with that competition coming in July. Some might have wondered if Vancil wouldn’t have siphoned off more minutes, even with LeBlanc in Chicago, if she hadn’t retired, but now, the Canadian is likely the undisputed #1 when available for another year at least.

The #2 position in goal is up in the air for the moment. The club brought in Michele Dalton from Kvarnsvedens in Sweden after the former Wisconsin netminder had played in Europe for a few years after leaving the Badgers. For what she is, Dalton is probably better than most short-term fill-ins, though she probably lacks the athleticism to ever grow into a true #1 keeper at this level. Unless Chicago makes a big move for another keeper though, Dalton is likely to be the Red Stars’ backup this year, meaning she may end up playing most of the matches anyway.

When LeBlanc is away, the amateur call-up option may well be Monica Gonyo, from small school Loyola (Ill.). Gonyo is a project with size but with just above average athleticism and handling that needs improving. If the Red Stars need to call upon her for an extended period of time, they’re in trouble.

Much depends on Dalton’s ability to adapt to this level. If she does so easily, many fears could be assuaged. If not, the long stretches without LeBlanc could be heartburn inducing for Chicago supporters.

Defenders

Brutal as the tactics may have been, Chicago still made them count, finishing second in the goals allowed table last season. With the club essentially returning all of their top defensive personnel from last season, there’s potential yet for this unit to again be near the top of that goals allowed table. The addition of Arin Gilliland certainly boosts the unit, but the Red Stars will be wary of losing Julie Johnston, Abby Erceg, and potentially Rachel Quon for the WWC. It’s a good thing that Chicago looks to have a strong defensive unit from top to bottom.

Most expected good things for USWNT’er Julie Johnston coming out of college. Few probably envisioned her becoming invaluable right away to the Chicago cause. But Johnston looked like a five-year veteran for the Red Stars last season, usually at center-back, though she also played in a defensive midfield role in a handful of matches. Johnston’s stock has surged higher in the offseason after playing in the Algarve Cup at center-back and looking fantastic doing so. Johnston has the look of a player that’s going to be a factor at international level for a very long time, and the question now is if she can help lead the Red Stars to a title at domestic level. Where she does it on the pitch is the biggest question. While Johnston looked spectacular at center-back last year, the club still has options there while looking a little lightweight in the defensive midfield zone of the pitch. Until Abby Erceg gets back from international duty, Johnston will probably be needed at center-back, but after the WWC, it’d hardly be a surprise to see the second-year player further up the pitch.

The Red Stars haven’t sprung for international players in their NWSL incarnation, but one they have sprung for, Abby Erceg, turned into a vital part of the squad last season. The New Zealand center-back didn’t join up from German side Jena until June but turned into a rock at the back for the Red Stars upon arriving. Erceg hopped back to Jena after the NWSL season but is back once more for the Red Stars and should be with the club for the parts of the season in which she isn’t at the WWC. Erceg already looked like one of the more imposing center-backs in the league in just half a season and still has plenty of upside to grow into. If the Red Stars are going to make the playoffs, Erceg is going to have to continue to excel in the back for Chicago with Johnston or whoever is at center-back beside her.

Chicago made a big acquisition when they drafted Kentucky left-back Arin Gilliland in the first round of this January’s draft. Gilliland looks like a future contender on the flank for the USWNT, as she runs like a thoroughbred and has a great physical build for this level, not to mention sharp leadership skills honed from helping to take Kentucky’s program to new levels in her four years with the program. While she juggled duties as a left-back and as a forward for the SEC side, Gilliland’s purely going to be a full-back at this level, albeit one that will more than likely get up and down the pitch to help contribute to the attack. While Chicago has its fair share of accomplished defenders, it’s tough envisioning Gilliland not starting out the season on the left flank. If she lives up to the hype, it’s also tough not seeing her in contention with the USWNT for the left-back role come the next WWC cycle.

Canadian international Rachel Quon is one of many on the bubble for the WWC after a solid but unspectacular beginning to her professional club career. When Quon was confirmed to have switched allegiances to Canada after hitting a brick wall in terms of her international hopes, it looked to have been a huge coup considering how well Quon had played collegiately for Stanford and considering the state of Canada’s defense at the time. Quon was steady for the Red Stars at right-back last season, but club and country alike have to be hoping there’s more to come yet for the former Card star. With so many of Chicago’s players set to miss time at the WWC, the Red Stars will likely be on pins and needles to see if Quon makes the cut and adds to the list of absences Dames has to contend with.

The role of Taryn Hemmings will be one that’s interesting to watch going forward. The veteran missed much of the early part of 2014 recovering from the previous season’s major knee injury and was used off the bench for much of the middle part of the season before getting consistent staring minutes at left-back in July and netting assists in two of the club’s final three matches. The problem is the club drafted a younger and more dynamic replacement at left-back in Arin Gilliland, who figures to start immediately. Hemmings possesses great versatility though and could step in at center-back during the WWC to replace either Erceg or Johnston or at right-back if Quon makes the cut for Canada. When the club is at full strength, Hemmings could be a valuable utility defender off the bench.

Second-year player Samantha Johnson is just the type of diamond in the rough that Dames has become accustomed to unearthing. Johnson had played out a mostly nondescript collegiate career at USC before getting a look in camp with the Red Stars last year. Not only did Johnston make the roster out of camp, she ended up starting on the backline for the club for almost the entire first half of the season. Injury would knock the former Trojan out after mid-June, but she was healthy enough to head to Australia for some more important seasoning with Sydney FC in the W-League. Johnson will likely occupy a center-back spot when Erceg and Johnston are away, and if she excels, it might enable Johnston to move further up the pitch into the midfield upon her return.

Michelle Lomnicki (nee Wenino) has done a nice job carving out a spot for herself with the Red Stars and perhaps saw more action than most might have anticipated last season, starting fifteen matches for the club. Lomnicki often served as a utility defender for the club, filling whatever vacancy needed to be filled throughout the season. Given the overall depth now residing on the backline, Lomnicki figures to play a similar role this season, perhaps from off the bench when the club is at full strength. Lomnicki, despite not being the biggest presence, could also be one to see time as a defensive midfielder when the club is missing a chunk of its players at the WWC.

There aren’t any weak links here when the club is at full strength. When a club can bring the likes of Hemmings and Johnson off the bench, it’s a very good sign indeed. It’s just a matter of coping with the loss of Erceg and Johnston during the WWC. Given the personnel, the Red Stars should be better off than some of their brethren.

Midfielders

The Red Stars looked like having one of the best midfields in the league over the course of the season, with just about everyone there for the whole campaign. Or so they thought. With Lori Chalupny back in the mix with the USWNT, the club will be down a very important part of their midfield for a good portion of the season should she make the WWC team as expected. There’s plenty in reserve, but second-year player Vanessa DiBernardo and rookie Danielle Colaprico will have to play at a high level to keep things together until Chalupny returns.

One of the biggest shocks of the offseason was when Lori Chalupny got a well deserved recall to the USWNT after years away in the wilderness due to fears about her concussion history. Restricted to club level football, Chalupny has been the heart and soul of the Red Stars for the first two seasons of the NWSL, and it’s safe to say the club would be well down in the table without her. Finally welcomed back to the fold with the USWNT, Chalupny looks set to make the WWC roster, leaving the Red Stars with a pretty big void for a chunk of the season. When Chalupny’s with Chicago though, she’ll again be the midfield engine doing both the dirty work as well as the necessary bits of invention the club needs from its midfielders.

With Chalupny likely gone for much of the year with the USWNT, there will be an increased role for second-year playmaker Vanessa DiBernardo. A key member of Chicago’s formidable youth movement, DiBernardo fought her way into the club’s starting lineup early and keep herself there for almost the entire season. Her contributions didn’t always show up on the stat sheet, but there’s unquestionable promise from the Illinois alum. She’ll be asked to take on more of the creative responsibilities in midfield with Chalupny back in the USWNT frame for what’s likely to be much of the season. Getting DiBernardo to take a big leap forward in directing the offense in 2015 could be one of the keys for the Red Stars to finally break their playoff duck.

The club used one of their early selections to take Virginia midfield Swiss army knife, Danielle Colaprico to fortify their ranks. Colaprico may have lingered in Morgan Brian’s shadow in Charlottesville for four seasons, but those who watched her play know she’s a big time talent that could flourish given the right opportunity at the pro level. Colaprico played all four midfield positions in UVA’s 4-4-2 diamond system as a senior, though a role deep at the next level doesn’t look too likely. With Vanessa DiBernardo and Lori Chalupny likely to take on roles in the middle and wide left respectively, Colaprico might find a home on the right flank, where her superb service might make the club’s multiple forward weapons very happy this season and beyond.

Also back is the volatile Alyssa Mautz, one of the league’s more mercurial players. A volatile performer in midfield for the Red Stars, now entering her third year with the club, Mautz is often just as likely to get booked as she is to score. But the Texas A&M alum also can come through with some big goals and has been great in a super sub role here when called upon. Mautz’s role figures to increase in 2015 with the club’s exodus of players for international duty, so Dames and co. will be hoping that the “good” Mautz shows up more often than not to bolster the club’s attacking options in midfield.

USWNT’er Shannon Boxx is a real wild card. She’s played less than four hundred minutes of club football in the past two seasons combined and will be thirty-eight in the middle of this season. But she’s also been able to work herself doggedly back into the mix for a spot on the USWNT WWC roster this Summer. Whether she makes the final cut remains to be seen, but the fact that she fought back to this position has to be admired. There will be the question of how much Boxx has left in the tank for the stretch run if she does make the WWC roster though. But with Chicago short on true defensive midfield candidates if Johnston stays at center-back, Boxx’s presence and poise would certainly be appreciated in the lineup.

Chalupny’s loss hits hard, with the unit down a very valuable member for a good portion of the season. But DiBernardo could have a breakout season, while big things are expected of Colaprico early as well. Add in the occasionally brilliant Mautz, and you have a unit capable of some destruction if things go according to plan. But the midfield is also short on depth and lacks a real blood and thunder destroyer in its ranks. The group will be fine once everyone’s back, but until then, it should be solid going forward and potentially frightful defending.

Forwards

The Red Stars might have two completely different frontlines during the WWC and after it. Three of the club’s forwards are likely to be in Canada for the competition, a fact that put the onus on Dames and co. to recruit heavily to bolster their striking options in the offseason. They chose to do so in the offseason, drafting three forwards to join Jen Hoy up front. It’s going to be a crowded deck after the WWC, but the newcomers have to ensure the club gets there without being in too deep a hole.

The key to the offensive puzzle in Chicago is USWNT forward Christen Press. Press didn’t join up with the Red Stars last season until June after finishing up with Swedish side Tyreso. Press ran a bit hot and cold with Chicago in her half season with them last year, at one point netting just one goal in six appearances, finishing with six goals total for the campaign. Of course, joining up in the middle of a season with a new club is hardly ideal, and there has to be the feeling that Press will be much more comfortable another season into her stint with the Red Stars. Press showcased some of her true ability with the USWNT since the end of the last NWSL season including an outrageous goal against France in the Algarve Cup final. While Press won’t be with the team for a big chunk of the year, she’ll have to showcase that type of scoring ability if Chicago are to make a deep run this year.

Jen Hoy began the season in fine form but faded late for the Red Stars last year. Some likely wondered if Hoy was turning into a new star as she netted goals in four matches in May as the Chicago offense ripped opposing defenses apart. But Hoy also wouldn’t score after May 23, and the Princeton alum had to make do with cameos off the bench for much of the latter part of the season. Some (including yours truly) questioned the compatibility of Hoy with Christen Press in the attack, while Dames mooted Hoy hitting the wall late in the season and claiming that a year on, the Red Stars forward will be more ready for the rigors of a grueling professional season. We’ll probably find out more about the latter before the former this season with Press again set to be gone for much of the year. With increased options in attack though, Hoy won’t be assured of minutes if she isn’t scoring.

Melissa Tancredi’s addition to last year’s roster was probably met with some skepticism considering the bulldozing target forward hadn’t played consistent club level football in ages. All things considered, the Canadian didn’t fare that badly after joining up, netting three goals despite missing around half the season while she finished up with school. The bad news for Chicago is that Tancredi is set to miss a big chunk of 2015 as well with the Canadian WNT. She’s also thirty-three years old, and you have to wonder how much there’ll be left in the tank after such a strenuous Summer. Given the influx of offensive options for the Red Stars, it’s not an automatic Tancredi will be back in the starting lineup upon her return, and she might best be used as a Plan B option off the bench.

Another Canadian, Adriana Leon, will be looking to tame her mercurial ways and finally turn into the consistent scoring forward she has shown glimpses of becoming. In one stretch early last year, Leon tallied a goal and three assists in a four match span. Unfortunately, Leon wouldn’t tally another goal or assist all season. Leon flitted in and out of the starting lineup for much of the second half of the season and didn’t play a full ninety minutes after June 4. Leon still looks to be part of Canada’s setup for the WWC and may be a starter if some of the nation’s friendlies are an indicator. She’s not guaranteed of starting minutes upon returning to Chicago though and could lose out on a crowded frontline if she doesn’t produce.

Given the amount of firepower that is going to be missing for the WWC, Chicago was always going to need to add offensive reinforcements in the offseason and have bet heavily on more young talent to keep the club’s attack afloat. The biggest name of the newcomers is Sofia Huerta, who has oscillated back and forth between the U.S. and Mexico in hopes of making her WWC dreams for the former come true. Huerta most recently spurned an opportunity with Mexico to surely lead their attack in Canada this Summer to try and eventually catch on with the USWNT. To do that, she’ll need to impress this season and beyond with the Red Stars. Huerta should be in line for major minutes right away this year once the American and Canadian internationals are gone for the WWC and could form a tantalizing partnership with Hoy up top. The key will be seeing how well she fits into the picture once the WWC is over, and Chicago is at full strength again.

The Red Stars have tapped into the regional market as far as many of their college draft picks are concerned and did so again by taking Wisconsin’s Cara Walls later in this year’s draft. Walls saved most of her best for last with the Badgers this past season, netting fourteen goals in twenty matches for the club. Walls did well against strong opposition and was fairly efficient with the ball, though she did see her shot on goal percentage drop in each successive season in her collegiate career. With so many forwards for the Red Stars headed to Canada for the WWC, Walls should have every chance to make a big impression with the club during her rookie season.

Also looking to make a quick impression is another of the club’s draftees, Illinois State’s Rachel Tejada. Tejada was a force for four seasons for the Redbirds, turning ISU into a side that won an NCAA Tournament match the last two seasons and that was generally one of the nation’s most dangerous mid-majors. Tejada was generally a pretty efficient forward with the ball at her feet, but, as always, with prospects from smaller clubs, questions will remain about her ability to do the business against professional level competition consistently. Tejada’s one of many young forwards looking to make a name for themselves with the Red Stars when the regulars are at the WWC, but it won’t be an easy path given the rivals she’ll have for playing time.

Chicago certainly has enough weapons to choose from after the WWC, with Press having the potential to fire her side to the playoffs if on form. Youth and inconsistency litter the remaining options, which could be a problem come the WWC when the big guns depart. There’s raw talent here though, meaning if Dames can work some magic, the attack might not be that bad off for that crucial midseason stretch.

Outlook

As you might surmise, I’m pretty bullish on the Red Stars. The biggest question is obviously in goal, but if the backup is indeed Dalton, Chicago should be in pretty good hands, with the former Wisconsin keeper a very good collegiate netminder who gained two valuable years of starting experience in Europe after graduating. The defensive depth is about as good as can be expected, with Johnson and Hemmings players who would be starting for more than one NWSL team…and they’re the backups. There are plenty of attacking options in midfield, enough that the club’s slightly worrying deficiency in defensive midfielders might be masked. Up front, things will be more than fine when the club has all of its forwards here, while there’s potential for goals amongst the youngsters, though production is far from certain.

At full strength, Chicago has more than enough talent to make the playoffs and is as deep as anyone in the league. It’s just a matter of getting to the point where everyone is available. In that sense, having a large degree of continuity and a manager capable of getting his club to grind out results should help. It should be enough to see the Red Stars stay comfortably afloat during the middle weeks of the season, and that’ll probably be good enough once the calvary arrives back from the WWC.

Prediction: 2nd

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