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Jul. 19—Rachel Hill is a veteran in the National Women's Soccer League but this season has been filled with firsts for the forward from Rollinsford.
After spending most of the offseason recovering from injuries, Hill, who is in her sixth NWSL season and third straight with the Chicago Red Stars, is adapting to a new position and a new-look team under first-year coach Chris Petrucelli.
Petrucelli, a longtime college coach, replaced Rory Dames, who resigned as head coach two days after Chicago lost to Washington in the NWSL final last November. Dames' resignation came just before the Washington Post published a story in which several players claimed he was emotionally abusive.
"(We're) halfway through the season so I think we've made a lot of progress from Day 1 when (Petrucelli) stepped in but we still have a long way to go, a lot to learn," Hill said. "But I think we're definitely on the right track and we've been doing well."
Hill, 27, went about three months this past offseason without touching a ball — the longest amount of time she can remember not doing so — while recovering from a torn labrum and surgery to repair Morton's neuroma in her left foot.
The Somersworth High School and University of Connecticut graduate played much of last season with Morton's neuroma and tore her labrum in Chicago's 2-1 extra-time loss to Washington in the NWSL final on Nov. 20.
Hill, who scored the Red Stars' lone goal in the final, was sidelined December through mid-March and missed the NWSL Challenge Cup in March.
During the preseason, Hill said she tried to help Chicago's rookies get comfortable while she rehabbed. The Red Stars did not have a head coach for the first month or two of preseason, Hill said.
Chicago has six rookies on its roster: Jill Aguilera, Ava Cook, Samantha Fisher, Channing Foster, Sarah Griffith and Mikenna McManus.
Hill, who has played in 11 games and is still working back to being fully healthy, said her message to Chicago's rookies was to have confidence in themselves.
"They're here for a reason and obviously good enough to be here," Hill said. "Just (told them) to believe in themselves and that we're all here to help them and want them to be at their best."
Despite the absence of key players like Tierna Davidson, Morgan Gautrat, Kayla Sharples, Kealia Watt and Casey Krueger, the Red Stars (5-2-5) are third in the 12-team table. Chicago was on an eight-game unbeaten streak before its 4-1 road loss to the fourth-place Houston Dash (5-4-3) last Saturday.
Defenders Sharples and Davidson, a U.S. Women's National Team member, are both out with season-ending ACL injuries. Gautraut, a midfielder and USWNT player, is out with a calf injury. Watt, a forward, and Krueger, a defender who played for the USWNT at last summer's Tokyo Olympics, are both on maternity leave.
Hill said the rookies came in wanting to learn right away and she has been impressed by how they have stepped up this season. Chicago has also created a positive environment and every player knows their teammates have their back, Hill said.
Petrucelli, who most recently coached the Southern Methodist University women's soccer team, uses a hands-off, managing coaching style, Hill said. Chicago's assistant coaches, for example, usually run the team's training sessions, she said.
"I think we've been gelling really well," Hill said. "With a lot of injuries and stuff, we might not have expected to be where we're at but I think everyone has adapted really well and stepped into the roles that have needed to be filled and done a great job with it."
Hill, who has scored one goal on 11 shots, is among the players who have had to adapt. Petrucelli installed a new possession-focused system and tasked Hill with playing wing back.
Traditionally a forward, Hill is adjusting to playing more defensively in her new position.
"(I'm) just kind of adapting to how I can best play that role as a wing back and making sure that I am still getting forward and being able to use my attacking qualities that I have," Hill said, "but also learning more on the defensive side and defending a bit more than I have in the past."
Besides getting fully healthy, Hill said her focus this season is to do whatever she can to help Chicago succeed and, ideally, capture its first league title.
The Red Stars have reached the past two NWSL finals (2019, 2021) and finished runner-up in the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup, which replaced the league's regular season that year due to the pandemic.
"Whatever role I need to play, I'll be the best at that," Hill said.