Chicago Red Stars NWSL 2016 season review

Even when riddled with many setbacks, the Chicago Red Stars were still a force to be reckoned with.

Chicago Red Stars NWSL 2016 season review
The Chicago Red Stars pose for their 2016 NWSL season picture (Source: @ChicagoRedStars)

The Chicago Red Stars had a very busy 2016 season. It all started in the off-season when they acquired goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher from the Boston Breakers in November 2015 after previous goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc announced her retirement. Opening their season at BBVA Compass Stadium with a 3-1 loss against the Houston Dash, many thought the Red Stars had fallen from grace. There had been some tough moments when forward Sofia Huerta was in a slight scoring drought and the constant draws with rivals FC Kansas City. The addition of Stephanie McCaffrey from Boston seemed to have given Chicago the spark they needed. There was lots of speculation if the Red Stars would make it to the postseason, but they prevailed through all the doubts and ended up with a playoff spot anyway.

Biggest win

Despite being towards the beginning of the season, the Red Stars’ biggest win was 2-1 against the Seattle Reign on May 22. Even with key players like Hope Solo, Jess Fishlock, and Megan Rapinoe gone, the Reign were still able still put up a strong side. Going into the game, Red Stars' coach Rory Dames was still a bit worried about how his team would perform because the rain still had Kim Little and a very strong backline. The game's first half came out scoreless but it was still very physical; it was a battle the whole way through. The Red Stars' Jen Hoy was able to come away with a brace during the second half, one goal coming earlier in the 56th minute and the other in the 67th. Although Seattle was able to pull one back off a Little penalty kick near the end of the match. The Red Stars were able to put their prior doubts away and come away with a huge win.

Biggest defeat

Undoubtedly, the biggest defeat for Chicago was a 2-1 loss to the Washington Spirit in the semifinals. With defeating the Spirit 3-1 just a week before, the Red Stars with the favorites going into this match. After Ali Krieger scored in the 35th minute, assisted by Shelina Zadorsky, neither team was able to find a good rhythm. There were plenty of shots taken by both teams, however the equalizer from the Red Stars came late in the second half from Christen Press. After the would-be game winner from Press hitting the crossbar during stoppage time, the game went to overtime. During the second period of extra-time, Washington Spirit forward Francesca Ordega scores the game winner off of Christine Nairn to end Chicago’s championship run.

Sam Johnson and Washington Spirit's Crystal Dunn battle for the ball | Source: @ChicagoRedStars

Player MVPs

The Red Stars exemplify what it's like to work together as a team, so it’s hard to pick just one MVP. Obviously, goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher and the defense came up big this season for Chicago. After the retirement of Karina LeBlanc, the Red Stars desperately needed another number one to take her place. Getting Naeher from the Boston Breakers was a pivotal move for Chicago. On a rare occasion a ball was able to get through the defense, Naeher made sure to have it covered by making save after incredible save this season. Red Stars' captain Press was stated saying taking shots on Naeher in practice improved her as a player.

Centerback pairing Julie Johnston and Sam Johnson have nearly been able to stop any team’s attack. With Johnston being out for parts of the season with injuries and the USWNT, Johnson stepped up big time by playing in, and starting, 19 games and logging 1,676 minutes. In addition to this, the outside backs Arin Gilliland and Casey Short, both starting and playing 20 games, made a huge impact on defense and offense. With both players being quick and skillful, they were able to move the ball around almost any midfield. Short ended up with two goals on the season and Gilliland with two assists, which goes to show neither player is afraid to move the ball forward and get in on the attack.

Last but not least Vanessa Dibernardo was the engine of the team; she led the team in assists with seven. She also took many of the corner kicks for the Red Stars to which she dropped balls beautifully into the box. She has incredible vision in talent that allows her to be a vital playmaker. A lot of the good plays this season came from DiBernardo making an exceptional pass in the midfield. Her ability to distribute the ball wherever she wanted to, and accurately, allowed Chicago to have the many good runs and goals they did.

Vanessa DiBernardo prepares to send the ball forward | Source: @ChicagoRedStars

Player with an off-year

With Chicago having such a good run this year, it's hard to determine who had an "off year." each player seemed to shine in their own way and it was effective for the club. However, the player with the off year would have to be Julie  Johnston. Johntson suffered with muscle injuries for a little bit of the season. Although rookie Katie Naughton was able to step seamlessly in that center back position while she was gone, Johntson's presence was heavily missed. During the games after returning from injury, Johnston's hesitancies were often noticeable. Despite all of this, the U.S. National Team star was still able to put up a good performance throughout the season even if it wasn’t her best.

Imporvements for 2017

The only real Improvement for 2017 would be to actually make the championship. The Red Stars have lost in the semifinal round twice in a row, and finally getting to the championship would make it all worth it; their semifinal performance against the Washington Spirit with significantly better than the one against FC Kansas City in 2015. Chicago has a pretty stable squad that have learned how to effectively communicate with each other, but the midfield would be more powerful if they either tightened up to go through the center of the field, or used the breadth of the field and the outside backs to go around. With six Red Stars recently being called into national team camp, the only way to go for the team is up.