One thing the Chicago Red Stars proved in the group stage of the National Women’s Soccer League Challenge Cup is they have one of the best defenses in the league.
When it comes to actually putting the ball in the back of the net, however, the jury remains out.
The Red Stars enter Saturday night’s quarterfinal against OL Reign having scored just two goals in four games. Only the Reign (1) have scored fewer goals than the Red Stars, who went scoreless for more than 300 minutes between midfielder Morgan Gautrat’s goal in the 51st minute of the first match and defender Casey Short’s 85th minute winner against the Utah Royals last Sunday.
But the departure of star striker Sam Kerr — and her 34 goals in 40 games with the club — is something the Red Stars are eager to move on from.
“We haven’t had an issue getting into dangerous spots,” coach Rory Dames said Thursday during a conference call. “We’ve had an issue once we get into dangerous spots of having quality in whatever decision we made or making a good decision and that just takes time.
“But the narrative of we’ve only scored two goals and Sam Kerr’s not here anymore and blah blah blah, I think that’s a little bit old.”
Dames pointed to the Red Stars’ ability to break with numbers into the opposition half and retain possession in the attacking third as positives.
What the Red Stars lacked in their four group-stage matches was the ability to connect the dots or make that final pass that leads to a clear-cut chance.
The Red Stars put just eight shots on target, according to official NWSL statistics, the lowest in the group stage.
“The main thing we’ve communicated to the players is the reason we haven’t scored a ton of goals is because we haven’t been able to get a lot of shots,” Dames said. “And for the situations that we found ourselves in, we should have put a lot more chances on frame. That’s going to be our focus.
“Everybody wants to score ... But again, we’re in week eight of what should have been an eight-month season trying to bring in an entire new attacking group of players (and) kind of form that DNA, form familiarity and relationships with each other and it just doesn’t happen.”
That new group of attacking players includes Kealia Watt and Rachel Hill, both of whom were acquired in the offseason following Kerr’s departure and have started three of the Red Stars’ four matches.
The new-fangled attack included a position change for Yuki Nagasato, who led the league in assists last season from wide and attacking midfield roles. In the group stage, Nagasato was tasked with leading the front line in a center forward role more akin to playing as a false No. 9 than as an out-and-out striker.
Being able to learn each other’s tendencies has taken time the Red Stars haven’t had because of the lack of a preseason caused by the COVID-19 shutdown, Watt said.
“As Rory has said, we’ve used these first games as preseason games technically because we didn’t have any in Chicago,” Watt said.
Dames said both before and during the Challenge Cup the Red Stars aren’t willing to risk the long-term health of players during the tournament. Gautrat and Nagasato, both of whom have picked up injuries, are unlikely to feature against the Reign.
But even without two of their starters, attacking midfielder Vanessa DiBernardo expects the Red Stars to start putting their attack together.
“What this team does well is when we need a result, we go out and get one,” she said. “We are still trying to put the final pieces together offensively. There’s a lot of new faces in the front line and we’re still trying to get used to playing with one another and learning each other’s tendencies.
“Unfortunately, we haven’t had as much time as we want, but I think each game we’re getting into the attacking third a little bit more (and) looking more dangerous, so hopefully this next game we can just put it all together.”
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