We’ve worked our way down through the Thorns’ playoff opponents – Kansas City and San Diego – and the fourth semifinalist, OL Reign.
Now it’s time to look at the one of the other two playoff clubs from 2022, the…
Chicago Red Stars
Year formed: 2013
The Red Stars are another founding NWSL club along with Seattle and Kansas City (both in different incarnations) and Portland. The actual “Red Stars” name goes all the way back to WPS, the first WoSo pro league in 2006, but the current club is not directly descended from the original other than through ownership – and we’ll talk about that, boyhowdy will we – and their NWSL fortunes have been dominated by woulda-coulda-shoulda ever since the first kickoff in April 2013.
2013-2014 – Arnim Whisler, who at the time was owner of the club, brought it in to the NWSL (it came in along with the only other WPS/WUSL legacy club, the Boston Breakers of late and unlamented demise).
Whisler had scrimped and hustled to keep the club going between the WUSA and WPS major leagues and through a barren patch of minor league deserts in 2011 and 2012 and was rewarded for his efforts by two mediocre early NWSL seasons under head coach Rory Dames.
2015 – The first season of The Chicago Curse of the Semifinals; Dames’ squad finally gets to the postseason…and gets knocked out by Vlatko’s FCKC
2016 – Same story only it’s Washington does the dirty work.
2017 – Same shit different day, only it’s Carolina this time.
2018 – Oh, fuck, Carolina again?
2019 – Finally! Chicago whips Portland here to go to the Finals…only to get whipped by The Damned Courage. Well, shit.
2021 – Another semifinal win in Portland, another Final loss, this time to Washington. And then Rory Dames quits…
As we know now, Rory Dames was just another in the long line of abusive NWSL head coach bastards whose sell-buy date was long after it should have been. His defenestration after the Yates and NWSL/PA reports also seems to have taken Whisler with him for having done a Paulson-grade coverup of the abuses in Chicago. That set the stage for a 2022 season that was perhaps as troubled for Chicago as for any club outside of here.
Owner: Arnim Whistler
The Whisler story is a long and sad one, reminding us that the sorts of things that save us in one setting can destroy us in others, and sometimes people can be both clever and foolish, creative and destructive; angels and devils with no space between.
Whisler was some sort of telecommunications guy when WPS kicked off in the middle Oughts. This 2020 puff piece says that he “…solv(ed) financial problems in major telephone, TV and other media companies…”, which makes him sound like some sort of shady fixer. I dunno. He had to be at least a semi-rich fixer to buy into pro soccer, but he seems to have only been semi-rich instead of fuck-you-money-rich like the Paulsons or the Anshutzes. That plays into his story and the team’s.
He stepped up in the Oughts when the U.S. WoSo world was a mess of Borislows and worse to help put together the Red Stars; the above 2020 article describes how Whisler spent a year “…working on a non-profit board, reorganizing that entity, as well as drawing and painting three days a week” to stand up the Red Stars in WPS.
He did the same again in 2011 and 2012, keeping the lights on as the Red Stars shuffled through a couple of semi-pro leagues, and then again in 2013 to usher the club into the new NWSL.
The Depression-style penny-pinching Whisler learned during these lean years of the early pro U.S. women’s game seems to have become a sort of obsession with him, though, and that obsession become a real problem. His NWSL players complained repeatedly about his relentless cheapness over everything from training grounds to player housing. This cheese-paring set the tone of the club; you’re always on the brink, we could fold any day now, you’re lucky to have a job, so just shut up and play.
He also repeatedly blew off complaints about Dames.
The breaking point, then, was the Yates Report and the deconstruction of Dames, who beat the pink-slip reaper only by quitting the day after losing the Final in November 2021.
Whisler was fired as CEO in October 2021, and on January 9, 2023 was included in the league “Statement Regarding Corrective Actions” as among the punished for their malfeasance; in Whisler’s case with a $1.5 million fine and firm direction from the league to sell the team. Like the Thorns, a sale process was announced in December 2022.
However as of this writing he is still the majority owner.
Head Coach: Chris Petrucelli
For a change, a Yank!
Petrucelli had a very minor college career before moving into coaching in the NCAA during the Eighties. He bounced back between the U.S. juniors and the NCAA until February 2022 when he got tapped for the Chicago job. He’s only the second manager in Chicago NWSL history, and that’s pretty much all I know about him.
As noted above, the Red Stars have made the postseason every year after 2014 and have made the Finals twice, the longest run of playoff appearances without a Finals win. Last season was the seventh consecutive postseason for Chicago.
2022 – 9-7-6 (33 points; 1st of 12) 34GF 28GA +6GD
Season summary: Chicago won their first game and proceeded to go 1-1-2 to drop below the red line by Matchday 5.
Then the Red Stars kicked it up; they went 3-0-2 over the next five and were in second on Matchday 10.
That was as high as they ever got. Over the next four they slumped back towards the red line.
By Matchday 14 Chicago stood at 5-4-5 and were clinging to the 6th and final playoff spot. The club went 3-3-1 over the final seven games to sneak into the playoffs only to be hustled out in the first round by San Diego.
Meetings with Portland: 5/28/22 (2-2 home draw), 9/25/22 (3-nil away loss, the famous “double bird” implosion)
Outstanding players: Beginning with Sam Kerr and Kristen Press, Chicago has a trophy cabinet full of great players who have worn the Red Stars crest. Last season that player was Mallory Pugh, now “Mal Swanson” since her marriage.
She knocked in 11 of the Red Stars’ goals along with six assists, the only Red Star in double figure goals.
Yuki Nagasato added four and three, and Ella Stevens four and two. Amanda Kowalski scored three. Nobody else had more than two…including, rather curiously, Ava Cook, the primary #9 with whom Petrucelli started the season.
The Red Stars weren’t the sort of attacking monster that the Thorns or The Damned Courage were, but they were in the top third of the league. The issue with the Red Stars squad wasn’t primarily up top.
No, the trouble seems to have been that somewhere between center mids Danielle Colaprico and Vanessa DiBernardo, the fullbacks – Bianca St. Georges and Rachel Hill – and the starting centerbacks – Tatum Milazzo, Zoe Morse, and Amanda Kowalski – the defense were…kinda rubbish.
We’ve discussed (in our look at the Kansas City defense) how her backline let A.D. Franch get hammered.
Well, by the looks they gave their opponents Chicago was worse. Much worse.
Here’s the playoff clubs in order of finish with their defensive stats:
Holy shit but Chicago defended their goal like a screen door keeps out smoke.
They gave up 10% more dangerous opportunities than the next-worse defense (ummm…that would be ours) and more than half again more than the stingiest, Seattle’s.
The Chicago DMs and backs spent the season shouting “look out!” at Alyssa Naeher.
Who, by the way, fucking stood on her head and kept out damn near half a goal a game – enough to save Chicago something like eight goals over the season, more than their whole season’s positive goal differential, mind – but still couldn’t keep the Red Stars from shipping far too many crap goals.
Here’s that Dror chart showing the late collapse/come-from-behind games again…
…to points that up.
Chicago wasn’t great at holding leads and was rubbish once behind. To be “not as crap as Gotham” is not actually a great thing to be.
So even with Swanson-Pugh upfront, even with a lineup full of veterans like Nagasato and DiBernardo and Kowalski, even with Naeher a wall in goal, the Red Stars shipped crap goals, didn’t score enough to offset their issues in back, and as a result ended up sort of backing into the first-round playoff tussle and getting whipped by Kansas City.
For the first time in seven years of playoff soccer the Red Stars wouldn’t even get to the semifinal.
How did they score?
Here’s Arielle Dror’s scoring chart. Again, I’ve broken down the Red Stars numbers:
Chicago scored a very middling number from the run of play – and as we’ve noted, 19 of the 21 were the work of Swanson, Nagasato, and Stevens – and were just barely in the top third of the club scoring.
What they did do was score a butt-load from setpieces; nearly a third of their total goals came from a combination of corners and that weird “other setpiece” thing. Amanda Kowalski was the corner kick beast, heading in three of the seven.
I dunno. Swanson is a damn fine player, Naeher is a beast, and I’ve respected a bunch of their veterans like DoBernardo, Colaprico, and Nagasato for a long time…but the Chicago attack was just kinda meh and with their broke-ass defense?
That seems Peak Red Stars; not bad, not great, just kinda…there. Always good enough to get to the playoffs, never good enough to win it all.
In a history that has been full of woulda-coulda-shoulda the 2022 Red Stars seem to be the most woulda-coulda-shoulda Chicago squad ever.
How Did They Look?
Chicago has fielded some version of a very similar look for a long time under Dames; Typically a 3-4-3 with an outstanding single striker (Kerr, Press, Swanson/Pugh) and a talented second option (Nagasato) in front of a work-womanlike midfield anchored by DiBernardo and Colaprico in front of a decentish defense and a solid keeper.
Petrucelli didn’t fuck around with that. Here’s who he started in the May match with Portland at Bridgetown – Chicago attacking towards the bottom:
Cook up top between Swanson and Nagasato, St. Georges and Hill the wingbacks and the usual defensive set. Here’s how they looked in August, in their worst loss of the season, a 4-nil whipping in Cary (attacking towards the top):
Petrucelli’s only change is to shift Morse into the center for Sharpless and plug Kowalski into the Morse spot at RCB. He continues to throw Cook up top despite her sterility in front of goal.
Okay, now here they are a month later, in one of their two 4-nil wins, this one at home against Kansas City (attacking downwards):
Petrucelli’s finally had it with Cook. He moves Stevens in there but stands pat everywhere else and gets the big win.
Finally here’s the starters for the Double Bird Implosion here in late September (attacking upwards):
I honestly don’t recall the circumstances leading up to this game, but this is the biggest mess Petrucelli made of the season.
Nagasato to center forward, moving Swanson back to LW, DiBernardo to RW (WTF?) with Gautrat in her place, Aguilera for Hill, Wright for Kowalski…was this a plan to give people rest? Injuries?
Whatever the reason, the result was a punchless clusterfuck…
…and that was before Portland got their own attacking shit together and St. Georges and Morse got tossed.
Now here’s how Chicago looked in the quarterfinal:
Kind of the same middle-school recess, with Swanson getting nothing done from left wing (8 shots, one on goal, no goals) and Nagasato’s lone strike the product of a freakishly bizarre Naeher mistake.
Whatever else this XI did, it did little going forward again. Here’s how Arielle Dror saw it:
So the Chicago on-pitch story seems to be the same story we saw above when we talked about their players; mediocre attack and semi-porous defense. What did we say then; “not bad, not great…just kinda there”?
Changes for 2023
Holy shit. Will the last midfielder out please turn off the lights?
The mass of NWSL grannies on the Red Stars roster meant that the free agency the CBA brought with it was always going to be fraught. Chicago had seven prospective free agents, I think the most of any NWSL squad in 2022. And given the trashfire lit by the Dames/Whisler nonsense..?
Two free agents – Arin Wright and Yuki Nagasato – re-signed with Chicago.
One – Kealia Watt – was on maternity leave and I can’t find a paper trail past that, so I’m not sure if she’s under contract but I don’t think she’s left, either, so maybe three.
Four of the long time veterans bolted:
Vanessa DiBernardo – signed with Kansas City as a free agent
Morgan Gautrat – signed with Kansas City as a free agent
Danielle Colprico – signed with San Diego as a free agent
Rachel Hill – signed with Dan Diego as a free agent.
Other losses include:
Zoe Morse – waived
Sarah Woldmoe – retired
Chicago had four picks in the 2023 NCAA draft and oddly spaced; one in the first round, two second, none third, one deep in the fourth round. With them they got:
Penelope Hocking (forward) – drafted 1st round #7
Grace Yochum (center/attacking midfield) – drafted 2nd round #14
Ally Schlegel (forward) – drafted 2nd round #22, and
Sophie Jones (center midfielder) – drafted 4th round #43
For a team that went into the draft barren in midfield that’s…a lot of forwards. Both good forwards, mind – Henderson graded Hocking “A+” and Schlegel “A-” – and both should be in the attacking mix given that the real weapon, Swanson, will miss a chunk of the summer with the Nats.
The pick Henderson reeeeeally liked, interestingly, was Jones, who seems like a “midfield general” sort of player who might well take one of the Colaprico/DiBernardo slots.
This winter The Red Stars have signed a “discovery player – Brazilian CDM Julia Bianchi – and traded Bermanbux with ACFC to pick up midfielder Cari Roccaro (a shockingly low $65K, too, making me wonder how a vet like Roccaro went so cheaply…)
Chicago also picked up midfielder Addie McCain off Kansas City waivers, and forward Jenna Bike, waived by Gotham. There’s also someone on the Chicago roster page called Chelsea Dawber, an Australian player signed in 2022 but was loaned to the W-League all season who’s still technically available.
Now we have to see what the hell we can make of this dog’s breakfast.
How they’ll look next year?
Well… here’s how they won’t look:
Here’s Henderson’s prediction for what we’ll see from them in 2023 (attacking up):
Okay, I can kinda-sorta of see that. The back three will benefit from the return of Tierna Davidson and Casey Krueger.
I’m not sure I see Arin Wright moving to left wingback, but Krueger and St. Georges are really right-footed and Davidson is too slow, so it’s a sort of needs-must move unless they can pick up a legit left wingback somewhere.
The other possibilities are to field Bianchi and Roccaro in place of the rookie Yochum and the journeywoman McCain. Hocking becomes the next-shot-at-a-center-forward and lets Nagasato move back to RW where she does better.
Will this work? I haven’t the slightest fucking idea. The Red Stars didn’t work all that well before, and this is a sort of “strip-it-down-to-the-studs” kind of rebuild even without the whole Whisler disaster and the uncertainty of the sale. We’re deep in the unmapped weeds here.
The Red Stars have been probably the single biggest “woulda-coulda” story of the NWSL for damn near a decade. They were always the “warning track power” club of the league; never dragging the bottom, always in the hunt…but somehow never figuring out how to get to the top step.
Now I think their “just-grind-out-another-playoff-season” run has ended. What happens now, I really can’t tell you. My guess is that this team will be a hot mess…but I sure wouldn’t bet money on that. At this point anything might happen with them. They could break out. They could slope into another drab mediocre season. There’s simply too many variables, too many unknowns.
No idea. Could make the playoffs, tho I think that’s a longshot. Could be the Wooden Spoon. Could slog along as mid-table dross.
Will they be dangerous? It’s going to take a major managerial miracle to make this Frankenstein club a consistently dangerous opponent. Can they have their day? Sure! This is NWSL After Dark, right? But this coming season seems like a rebuilding one, and those are usually difficult on the rebuilding team. I think a fifth or sixth place finish will be an accomplishment
Can the Thorns beat them? Yes. Our backline needs to keep Swanson and Nagasato in hand but if so? This club looks eminently beatable.
But I say that with a tiny hesitation in my voice. This sucker is literally a black box. What it becomes over the 2023 season is impossible to see from here now, and I would hate to be beaten with the stick of predicting their demolition when they’re tearing up the league in September. These people have a big hill to climb, but, hey – Kansas City, 2022, worst-to-first, right?
It’s happened. So we’ll need to keep and eye on the Red Stars in April and May. We might be surprised.
Next up: The Houston Dash