The Chicago Red Stars have one of the deepest rosters in the NWSL. And with a shot at winning multiple trophies this season, the expectations never have been higher.

Jeremy Mikula, Chicago Tribune
·4 min read

It’s getting a little lonely in the Chicago Red Stars’ trophy cabinet.

Sure, there are some runners-up medals, such as the 2019 National Women’s Soccer League final and the 2020 Challenge Cup, but you have to go back to the 2012 USASA National Women’s Cup for the last time the Red Stars won a competition.

But entering the 2021 campaign — which kicks off Friday night against the Houston Dash in the Challenge Cup — the Red Stars have several chances to add to that cabinet.

And with one of the deepest and most talented squads in the NWSL, expectations for the Red Stars never have been higher.

So what happens if they fall short and end 2021 without anything to show for it?

“Everybody wants to win the league, everybody wants to win trophies, so I don’t ever try to set those as the be all,” coach Rory Dames said Wednesday during a conference call. “I’ve made no secret of what we want to do, but I don’t think it’s a successful or not a successful season based off of that specifically.

“We’ll certainly be disappointed if we don’t bring home any hardware this year.”

The Red Stars have four opportunities to collect a trophy this season in competitions of varying pedigree.

The league championship and NWSL Shield, awarded to the team with the best regular-season record, are up for grabs as always. This season’s Challenge Cup, a round-robin tournament, functions as a curtain-raiser before the start of the regular season.

And while this summer’s inaugural International Women’s Cup arguably might not be the most prestigious — several players are likely to miss because of the Olympics and the two yet-to-be-named European teams still will be in their preseasons — it nonetheless offers a fourth opportunity.

“There are four trophies that are out there for us to go after this year, and we set the mindset early that we’re going to go after all of them,” Dames said.

The Red Stars’ depth will be challenged to start the Challenge Cup: goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, defender Tierna Davidson and midfielder/defender and team captain Julie Ertz will be away on U.S. national team duty. Defender Bianca St. Georges and goalkeeper Emily Boyd are recovering from knee injuries.

They’ll also be without forward Mallory Pugh, one-half of their marquee trade in the offseason that also landed midfielder Sarah Woldmoe.

Pugh, who played just one match last season with NJ/NY Gotham FC (formerly Sky Blue FC) because of injuries, injured her hamstring during national team camp in January and reaggravated it during the preseason.

“Mal’s injury at the last national team camp was a severe one,” Dames said. “It was a muscle injury but it was probably as bad as it could be, so she’s on pace to potentially get some time before the Challenge Cup is done and looks great in training with what she’s allowed to do.

“I don’t know if we have a specific time frame other than when the medical staff and the performance staff and Mal all feel like she’s not at risk and she’s good to go.”

Still, the Red Stars are confident their depth gives them enough options, particularly in midfield where strength in numbers has created an increased competition for places.

“We’re probably too deep at every position with players that are good enough to start in this league,” Dames said. “I’m hoping that that’s going to help us push over that ‘bridesmaid to bride’ analogy, but time will tell. It’s a long season.”

Meanwhile their attack — which struggled during last season’s Challenge Cup but improved during the Fall Series — should have improved familiarity with Kealia Watt and Rachel Hill, among others, back for their second seasons with the club.

And that’s not to mention an expanded ownership group that aims to increase resources and raise the club’s profile.

It all adds up to lofty aspirations — and whether the Red Stars can live up to the billing.

“We have a very deep roster, and of course it comes with expectations,” midfielder Morgan Gautrat said, “but I feel like we’ve always had a great team and we’ve always had those expectations behind us.”