The Red Stars were in the 2021 NWSL Championship game so, under normal circumstances, it wouldn’t be a shock that they’re performing well this season.
However, head coach Rory Dames was allowed to step down the day after losing the championship to the Washington Spirit, ahead of accusations of abuse in The Washington Post. Chris Petrucelli wasn’t announced as a permanent replacement until February 18 — just one month before their first Challenge Cup match.
Yet, so far, the Red Stars have just one loss and have already established a high standard of play in a new system.
The Red Stars’ unique 3-4-2-1 formation is throwing opponents off
They line up with three defenders in the back line, two wide wingbacks, and two defensive-minded midfielders behind two hybrid attackers — who can float around the final third or drop into midfield for ball progression — and a central striker.
The middle four in particular are crucial to the effectiveness of their system. They combine to press furiously in the middle of the park, making buildup play through them extremely difficult, while also allowing players to be near pockets of space between lines once possession is recovered.
The back three have been tremendously resolute despite key injuries including USWNT star Tierna Davidson tearing her ACL in preseason and defender Kayla Sharples tearing hers a couple weeks ago.
Reliance on youth
Chicago’s system is set and refined to the point where players know their responsibilities and exactly what to do to carry their weight. Though the Red Stars are their most dangerous with USWNT star Mallory Pugh on the pitch, in her absence they have been able to rely on relatively inexperienced players to get the job done, too.
Rookie Sarah Griffith and second year player Ella Stevens in particular have found early success in attack. Griffith has one goal and one assist on the season while Stevens has added three goals and an assist.
Ok, nobody’s perfect, so how can they be beaten?
As mentioned, the Red Stars have lost one game all season. That match was an early season clash with current league-leaders San Diego Wave FC. The Red Stars went behind early in the second half to an Alex Morgan penalty, then traded goals in the final minutes to end with a 2-1 loss.
Since then, Chicago has drawn four and won four, and only been held without a goal in one match (a midweek scrap with last year’s champions, Washington Spirit). If there’s a key to beating the Red Stars, it’s hidden on a scroll in an ice-locked colonial ship and everyone who has tried to reach it has perished. Yes, that is the plot to National Treasure, but you get the point.