2024 S-2 Briefing: Chicago Red Stars

The Red Lantern.

The Tour de France bike racers call the last guy to cross the finish line in Paris “la lanterne rouge” after the taillight on the back end of a train. In cycling it’s actually sort of a weird honor, meaning you’ve stuck to the grueling race even though you’re dead last without the slightest hope of winning.

Soccer is…not like that.

The Wooden Spoon is, like many fundamentally silly things, a British university tradition. As a “reward” for finishing last actual spoons were handed out at Cambridge beginning in the late 1700s and as a term was imported to sports by at least the late 19th Century.

I didn’t know until I began writing this post that there is (or at least was) an actual no-shit physical Wooden Spoon “awarded” by the supporters groups after every MLS season for several years.

The edition in the Teens was named after the human by-product Anthony Precourt, then-owner of the Columbus Crew, for all his shitty beavering away at stealing the club from its fans.

Here it is after the LA Galaxy took it home for the 2017 season.

The past season’s NWSL Wooden Spoon was, a bit shockingly, that perennial playoff contender, the…

Chicago Red Stars

Year formed: 2013
Another of the Original Eight.

The club struggled out of the gate in 2013 and had another poor season in 2014 before then-manager Rory Dames & Co began to run off the longest (and most futile) playoff string in NWSL history, beginning with…
2015 – The first season of Chicago’s “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 once there by The Damned Courage.
Well, shit.
2021 – Another semifinal win in Portland, another Final loss, this time to Washington. And then Rory Dames quits…
2022 – Fuck, what now? San Diego!? Oh Jesus wept.

So the Red Stars entered 2023 as perennial also-rans, the longest-running-good-but-not-quite-good-enough outfit in the league’s existence.

Owner: Per the club Wikipedia page, it’s “…an investment group led by Laura Ricketts and including Angela E.L. Barnes, Traci P. Beck, Pittsburgh Penguins partner Debra Cafaro, Laura Desmond, Sidney Dillard, Megan Murphy, Editha Paras, Jennifer Pritzker, Hilary Rosen, Jessica Droste Yagan, Tom O’Reilly, and the Engelhardt family.”

After what seemed like an interminable (to anyone not a Thorns fan) delay the sad act that was Arnim Whisler finally sold up in September 2023.

Ricketts is an owner of the Cubs baseball franchise. It looks like she’s family-money through multi-billionaire papa Joe’s TD Ameritrade business but on herownself has been mostly a corporate lawyer and advocate for political-left causes. She seems (to an old lefty like me) to have her heart in the right place. It’s always chancy with the rich, but at least this doesn’t seem like some sort of skeevy vulture capitalist out to skin the People’s Game.

The club webpage lists Karen Leetzow, a sports attorney and exec, as president, Michelle Henstock as Director of Operations, and Richard Fuez as general manager

Head Coach: Lorne Donaldson
The first Jamaican head coach in the league.

Donaldson had a minor college playing career, about which details (such as his position or records) I can find virtually nothing. This including Kingston College in Jamaica (presumably in the late Seventies) and Division II Metropolitan State University of Denver (MSU) in the early Eighties. There he was at least good enough there to make the NAIA First Team in 1981.

Donaldson is listed as playing for Jamaica between 1975 and 1979. The not-yet-known-as-“Reggae Boyz” were kind of a shitshow during the Seventies; they’d just had to pull out of the CONCACAF Championships in ’73 because something like 17 guys on the squad had run wild in Bermuda and got kicked off the team. In ’77 they went out of the WC qualifiers in the group stage with two straight losses to Cuba. So it’s hard to say what value being a “Jamaica international” in 1976 had for Donaldson’s c.v.

Donaldson began his managerial career as an assistant coach at MSU from ’82 to ’85, and then as an assistant for the “Colorado Foxes” of the APSL/A-League, a short-lived minor league that spanned the gap between the NASL and MLS, between 1990 and 1997. He did well enough there to be named “Coach of the Year” for 1996.

After the APSL folded in ’97 there’s a gap in Donaldson’s c.v. until he pops up as an assistant coach with the Colorado Rapids in 2001. Sounds like he was working with junior club teams in the Denver area between ’97 and ’01, but I’m not sure.

The Rapids gig seems to have lasted one season, then a long lacuna until Donaldson turns up as an assistant to Hue Menzies for Jamaica Women at the WC in 2019 and continuing under the next gaffer (Hubert Busby Jr.) up to 2021. He got the top job in Jamaica in June of ’22 and famously got the Reggae Girlz through to the WC knockouts last year.

Like Menzies before him, though, Donaldson butted heads with the Jamaica federation about the organization’s relentless cheapness, and grabbed a hat, signing with Chicago this past December.

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 in the NWSL.

Last season was the first time in the last eight years that the Red Stars have missed the playoffs, as well as the first time in club history it nicked the Spoon.

2023 – 7-3-12 (24 points; 12th of 12) 28GF 50GA -22GD
Season summary: Trashfire.

Lying eighth after the Opening Day loss to San Diego the Red Stars never went higher. The club dropped to the bottom by Matchday 6 and drifted up and down between 10th and 12th for the rest of the season. They were completely crap.

That’s the sort of thing that gets gaffers fired, and, sure enough, then-head-coach Chris Petrucelli got the boot from the new owners before Decision Day.
Meetings with Portland: 5/21/23 (4-0 away loss), 6/18/22 (2-3 home loss)

Outstanding players: Mal Swanson.

When Swanson went down with a knee injury in April it knocked the stuffing out of the Red Stars. She was their only reliable scorer. Without her their attack…wasn’t.

So the team “leaders” were Bianca “Double Bird” St. Georges and Ella Stevens, both with four goals each. Yuki Nagasato, Ava Cook, and Penelope Hocking added three each. Allison Schlegel got two, and six players bagged one each.

As meager as that was the issue with the Red Stars squad wasn’t up top.

In 2022 I wrote that “…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.”

Then came 2023, making the Red Star’s 2022 defensive play look as winsome as an adorable sparkle-pony-themed child’s birthday party:

Goalkeeper – SeasonxG againstGAGamesxGa/gameD/Diff
Naeher 202231.0922221.55-0.45
Naeher 202348.450202.42-0.02

Over 2.4 xG a game??!!

Holy shit but Chicago defended their goal like a screen door keeps out smoke. The Chicago DMs and backs spent the season shouting “look out!” at Alyssa Naeher.

Who, by the way, could no longer do the heroics of her prime. In 2022 she kept out damn near half a goal a game. Last season? No. She was merely human.

So without Swanson upfront, with a hopeless backline and Naeher no longer a wall in goal, the Red Stars shipped a metric ton of crap goals, didn’t score enough to offset their issues in back (who could have?), and as a result ended up licking the Spoon.

How did they score?

Here’s the graphic, same legend as always:

Chicago scored 17 of 28 (about 61%) from the run of play. Like 2022, they scored a lot from setpieces; 21% of their total goals came from a combination of corners and a free kick.

Unlike 2022, the corner kick scorers were spread all over the roster (in ’22 Amanda Kowalski got three of seven); last season Nagasato got one, Stevens got one, Schlegel got one, Milazzo got one, and Cook got one, too.


Like I said; the scoring wasn’t really the problem. Chicago’s 30GF was better than eight other clubs including three playoff teams.

The “defending”? 50 fucking GA?

THAT was the problem.

How Did They Look?

Here again, the change at the top means that looking back at what Petrucelli did is pretty pointless. Instead lets look at two things:
1) What formation(s) did Donaldson run out with Jamaica, and
2) Since we agree that the problems were in back, a) who were the problems, and b) has Chicago done anything to solve that?

First, Donaldson.

Here we run into an interesting thing; the guy is all over the shop with formations. Let’s look at the record, starting with 2022:

Match date – OpponentVenueFormationResult
7/4/22 – MexicoCONCACAF Group Stage4-2-3-11-nil win
7/7/22 – USWNTCONCACAF Group Stage4-4-20-5 loss
7/11/22 – HaitiCONCACAF Group Stage4-3-34-nil win
7/14/22 – CanadaCONCACAF Semifinal4-2-3-10-3 loss
7/18/22 – Costa RicaCONCACAF 3rd Place4-5-11-nil win
7/23/23 – FranceWC Group Stage4-4-1-1scoreless draw
7/29/23 – PanamaWC Group Stage4-1-4-11-nil win
8/2/23 – BrazilWC Group Stage4-1-4-1scoreless draw
8/8/23 – ColombiaWC Round of 164-1-4-10-1 loss

From this what I get is that:
1) Donaldson is fairly flexible tactically when his squad is evenly-matched; his CONCACAF tournament includes three formations, more open and aggressive against peer foes (and successful with the 4-2-3-1 with Mexico and the 4-3-3 against Haiti), more defensive against better teams (successful with the 4-5-1 against the Ticas but unable to hold off the US Nats in the 4-4-2).
His two missteps – at least it seems to me – were a) staying with the 4-2-3-1 against Canada, who aren’t the punchless cackhanded mob of the Charmaine Hooper Era, so a more defensive set might have worked better, and b) same with the USWNT; why not drop into a 4-1-4-1 or 4-4-1-1 and try to grind out a scoreless draw?

2) When he does feel the heat he goes to a defensive posture; the 4-5-1 in the medal round at CONCACAF, and the 4-4-1-1/4-1-4-1 all through the World Cup.
Scoreless draws in the group stage when you’re playing France and Brazil? I’ll take that, thanks!

I think the progression above also shows that the guy is learning. In 2022 he runs out the standard balanced formations – 4-2-3-1/4-4-2 – against the monsters of CONCACAF and gets handed his ass.

In 2023 he packs the back and dares the monsters to come at his squad, and pulls their teeth, grinds out a 1-nil win against the other CONCACAF minnow Panama, and goes through.

Smart guy!

So…what can we do with 2023 Chicago and this?

Well, first, there’s nothing there to help us with the defensive sets. In 2023 Petrucelli ran out:
4-2-3-1 – 13 matches (4-7-2)
3-4-3 – 6 matches (1-5-0; ouch!)
4-4-2 – 2 matches (2-0-0) and
3-5-1-1 – 1 match (0-0-1)

Hard to generalize from that other than the 3-4-3 did not suit his squad.

Okay, so, we’re not getting help here. But my other question was “what was (who were) the defensive problem(s) in 2023 and has Chicago done anything to fix that”?

Let’s start by looking at the big fails, starting with Matchday 3 where the Red Stars ship four goals against Kansas City:

Petrucelli ran out a 3-4-3 in his first four matches (1-3-0) with Bianca St. Georges and Arin Wright as wide midfielders/ACMs, Cari Roccaro and Yuki Nagasato at the double pivot and Casey Krueger, Tierna Davidson, and Tatum Milazzo across the back.

Next match he tries it again against Carolina:

Same exact formation, worse result – 5-2 loss instead of 4-2.

Okay, so the 3-4-3 is a tire fire. He then fiddles around with formations; 3-5-1-1 on Matchday 5 (draw), 4-3-3 on Matchday 6 (loss), 4-2-3-1 on Matchday 7 (loss), back to the 3-4-3 on Matchday 8 (loss), back to the 4-2-3-1 on Matchday 9 and here we are:

…shipping four goals in the 4-nil loss to us.

Some changes in back; Nagasato and Roccaro switch sides at the pivot, Double Bird is pulled back to RB, Krueger moves inside to RCB alongside Davidson, Wright is now LB.

That worked so well he tried again when The Damned Courage came to visit in June:

Wholesale changes now; Bianchi replaces Nagasato at the #6, Krueger back out to RB, Milazzo in at RCB alongside Davidson, Double Bird back up to RW/ACM.

This cluster goes down 0-5, so the next time we see it getting hammered – Matchday 16 in Orlando – the 4-2-3-1 looks like this:

Bianchi and Roccaro just swap sides, but the backline is completely different; Krueger goes from RB to LB, Wright from LB to LCB in place of Davidson, Kayla Sharples in for Milazzo at RCB, and Taylor Malham in the RB spot where Wright was.

Another 5-nil loss, so when we see it again, getting stuffed 6-3 in Kansas City, it looks like this:

Sharples, Bianchi, Wright, and Roccaro stay. Milazzo back in, at RB for Malham, and Jill Aguilera at LB for Krueger.

All this defending seems so piss-poor that someone should get fired, right? That’s what’s supposed to happen when you crash the airplane, so if we’re gonna hang a pink slip on Chicago’s 2023 defenders, who’s gonna get it? If this was a hockey team, whose “plus-minus” would be the most negative?

KrugerDavidsonWrightSt. GeorgesRoccaroNagasato

Okay. So the goats here look like Cari Roccaro, at DM in all six big losses, Arin Wright (all six), Casey Krueger (five of six), and Tierna Davidson (four of six).

Looks to me like Chicago needs to replace most or all of those four to improve in back.

Did they?

Changes for 2024

Looks like they mostly did;
Wright – traded to Louisville
Krueger – signed with Washington as a free agent
Davidson – signed with Gotham as a free agent
Roccaro – re-signed as a free agent

So three of four gone. Who came in to replace them?

Natalia Kuikka from Portland, for one. Camryn Biegalski from Washington, for another, both as free agents, and Sam Staab, traded in from Washington.

Alongside Roccaro the Red Stars re-signed defenders Tatum Milazzo and tho listed at midfield, quondam fullbacks Malham and Aguilera.


Coach Donaldson looks to have a reconstructed defense.

Other defections from Chicago included free agents Ella Stevens to Gotham, Double Bird to Carolina, Sharples to Bay City, and Nagasato to Houston.

That’s kind of a bloodbath. Getting Shea Groom as a free agent from Houston doesn’t seem like sufficient recompense.

Chicago had five picks in the 2024 NCAA draft; a first rounder, one second, two third, and a fourth rounder. With them they got:
Leilanni Nesbeth (midfielder) – 1st round #10
Jameese Joseph (forward/winger) – 2nd round #15
Hannah Anderson (centerback) – 3rd round #31
Bea Franklin (midfielder) – 3rd round #41, and
Celia Gaynor (centerback) – 4th round #45

Fairly balanced with a tilt towards midfield and defense appropriate for a club that leaked goals last year.

Henderson liked the Nesbeth pick well enough, thought Joseph was a reach, and was satisfied enough with the low rounders. But here were his final thoughts:


How they’ll look next year?

I’m just spitballing here:

Will this even 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. We’re deep in the unmapped weeds here.

Getting Swanson back is huge. Keeping her healthy is even huge-er. Shoring up the defense is huge-est.

If Swanson swanson-s, some others chip in, and the defense stops shipping goals? This outfit could rebound. Seems to me that Donaldson is a smart and pragmatic sort of coach; if anyone can figure out a way to tidy up this rat’s-nest he’d be likely to.

But there’s a lot to fix, and I agree with Henderson; this outfit seems just a bit short at every spot. I’m not sure Donaldson will have the horses.

Summing Up

The Red Stars were always the “warning track power” club of the league; never figuring out how to get to the top step but never awful enough to have to blow up and rebuild.

Last season they finally hit the wall, and that demolition had to happen.

I’m not sure if the rebuild is going to be enough. I think this season is going to be a real adventure for Chicago.


No idea. Too many variables. Playoffs aren’t out of reach given the expanded format, but it’s gonna depend on Swanson, Naeher, the backline, and how well and quickly Donaldson can retool this mob.

Will they be dangerous? As always in this league, they will have their days. 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. Bottom three or four wouldn’t be shocking.

Can the Thorns beat them? Yes. Our backline needs to keep Swanson 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 2024 season is impossible to see from here and 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 Noobs

John Lawes
Latest posts by John Lawes (see all)

4 thoughts on “2024 S-2 Briefing: Chicago Red Stars

  1. Kuikka was a nice add and Swanson is Swanson; a great player, but like LaVelle, she is fragile.
    I like the idea of Donaldson as the coach because I think he can get a lot out of an underestimated group. But I am starting to think that unlike the last two years where there was quite a bit of parity; this year the NWSL is looking more and more like like a top heavy league. Gotham, San Diego, Bay City, Thorns, NC and maybe the Washington Spirit will be smashing the other six. There seems to be a lot of good players that are ignoring Horan and heading west to the NWSL. Unless Chicago can add another difference maker, I agree Chicago and Utah look like wooden spoon candidates.

    1. Hard to say. On paper, yes; there’s a “Tier One” with the clubs you list (tho I’d asterisk both Bay City and Washington; they’re either unformed or REformed to the point where we’re going to need to see them first) and a “Tier Two” with the rest.

      On the pitch? It’s seldom that simple. That’s why I doubt Chicago repeats as the Spoon; they’ve gotten better in back, for one. I don’t see a Shield, but I could see them grabbing the #8 spot if they get the breaks.

  2. I feel like we oughta give a special Peaked Kinda Early Best Schedule Drop Video By A Last Place Team Award to the Red Stars for their Wednesday-inspired effort last spring.

    The season went all downhill from there….

    1. Dunno if we can throw TOO many stones; we’ve had some pretty terrific tifos here that were followed by 90 minutes of utter crap. And I’d be kidding you if I said I even remembered that video. Can you be humiliated by a fail nobody else remembers..?


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