Chicago Red Stars want to start the NWSL regular season right. First up? A ‘huge game’ vs. the Portland Thorns, considered favorites to win the league title.

·5 min read

The Chicago Red Stars have lofty expectations entering the 2021 National Women’s Soccer League regular season — but so do the Portland Thorns, the Challenge Cup champions considered by many the favorites to win the league title this year.

Thus sets the stage for the Red Stars’ season opener Sunday against the Thorns at Providence Park (6 p.m., Twitch) in what could be a preview of the postseason.

“Well Portland’s been crowned the new kings, so the fact you get to go play them in our first game at their place is a great opportunity for us,” coach Rory Dames said Friday. “I’m sure we’ll learn some things about ourselves and we’ll learn some things about Portland.

“I do think when it’s all said and done we’ll be two of the teams standing when it counts.”

After losing the NWSL final in 2019 and the Challenge Cup final in 2020, the Red Stars hope they finally can turn the corner and lift their first trophy since 2012.

They already came up short in this season’s Challenge Cup. But with the “real” games starting this weekend, the Red Stars have their eyes on two big pieces of hardware — the league title and NWSL Shield, awarded to the team with the best regular-season record — in addition to a “nice to win” trophy in this summer’s Women’s Cup international tournament.

The Thorns enter the match not only as Challenge Cup champions but with a stacked roster that includes U.S. national team star Crystal Dunn.

“Our focus is on ourselves,” midfielder Danielle Colaprico said. “I feel like we need to get a win under our belt and that’s our main goal in this game. Obviously, playing against Portland at Portland is a huge game for us. They’re a very quality team and have a lot of great players.”

Forward Kealia Watt echoed that mindset.

“One of our coaches said the other day, ‘However this game goes is really going to set the tone for the season,’ and I think he’s right,” Watt said. “We need to go in and play well and get a win, that is a must for us.”

And if the Red Stars don’t win?

“You just have to keep going, that’s really our only option,” Watt said. “We want to win and we expect to win. But we also want to play well, and we’ve had some games this year where we have felt like we haven’t played well individually and collectively.”

What makes the Thorns a good barometer is how lopsided the series is: The Red Stars are 2-11-10 all time against the Thorns, according to

“Portland has not been a kind place for us to go to in the past,” Dames said, “so I’m looking forward to seeing how this group responds to that and gets into that.”

The Red Stars’ season already has been eventful. They went 0-2-2 in Challenge Cup play, conceding some preventable goals and scoring just three times.

But all of that was overshadowed by the NWSL’s investigation after defender Sarah Gorden said she and her boyfriend were racially profiled by Houston security after a scoreless draw against the Dash.

The ensuing weeks included fines and the league’s independent investigation ultimately resulting in no disciplinary action.

“The league did what it felt it needed to do with whoever it needed to do it with,” Dames said of the investigation. “The people within our locker room certainly didn’t need any investigation to tell us what did or did not occur or if it was or was not OK.

“And the only thing I would say is: What I think has been lost in all of this is, regardless what any investigation turns up, it doesn’t change the way Sarah was made to feel. ... Sarah certainly knows that everyone within our locker room has her back, supports her and believes what she told us.”

The Red Stars on Sunday will be without midfielder Morgan Gautrat, who was given a one-game suspension by the NWSL. But they will have forward Mallory Pugh, who was injured the majority of preseason and was on a minutes restriction during the Challenge Cup.

Dames declined to say if that restriction will carry over into the start of the season but said Pugh is “certainly available for us.”

Pugh’s fitness will be crucial if the Red Stars are to have success in 2021. But regardless of the result Sunday, the Red Stars still have a full slate of games, including a return to SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeview to take on NJ/NY Gotham FC next week.

“Our group doesn’t get very emotionally high or emotionally low, they stay pretty even keeled,” Dames said. “If we go there and get a result, that’d be great. But all that means is we get on a plane and come home and get ready for Gotham the next weekend. And if we go there and lose it’ll not be so great, but we’ll get on the plane and we’ll get ready for Gotham the next weekend.

“You have to have a short memory in this league or you won’t be around very long.”