ANALYSIS – The winless have conquered the unbeaten. In a gritty Saturday night tussle at the SeatGeek Stadium, Angel City FC toppled the Chicago Red Stars 1-0. For the high-flying hosts, it’s a first loss of the NWSL season. There are plenty of lessons to be taken from what was an uninspiring performance, but Chicago won’t keep their heads down for too long. As manager Lorne Donaldson says simply, “we were never gonna go unbeaten.”

Red Stars Lack the Cutting Edge in Defeat to Angel City

Defensive Mishaps Continue for the Red Stars

One notable shift in the Red Stars’ play-style since the appointment of Lorne Donaldson has been their lack of possession. Chicago seem to enjoy sitting back for much of the game, capitalizing on the rare attacking opportunity to put one past the opposition’s goalkeeper. For the most part, the team have defended ruthlessly. Indeed, even including yesterday’s defeat, the Red Stars have only conceded three goals in four matches.

That being said, they remain prone to individual errors at the back. Two weeks ago against the Orlando Pride, the Red Stars conceded the opener from an own goal by midfielder, Taylor Malham. Malham parried a short Orlando corner past teammate, Alyssa Naeher in goal, following a clear miscommunication between the two. Chicago eventually rescued a point, but there were signs that harsher consequences could follow.

That’s exactly what happened against Angel City. The Red Stars got away with one early – Claire Emslie’s looping ball into the box took a wild deflection that sent Naeher the wrong way, but Tatumn Milazzo slid in at the last second to make a goal-line clearance. Next time around, the hosts weren’t so lucky. Again, an Emslie cross had the Red Stars back line scrambling. Amidst the confusion, Maximiliane Rall got a foot on the ball and rolled it into her own net. It’s a second own goal in two matches for a team that’s otherwise been so defensively solid. Unlike against the Pride, however, there was no consolation in the form of a draw.

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Lack of End Product Sinks Chicago

For the first time this NWSL season, the Red Stars were unable to score. In the first half, it was for sheer lack of opportunity. Angel City had much of the ball in the first 45 minutes, and even when they didn’t, Chicago posed a minimal threat. Jenna Bike was the bright spark going forward, but no real effort towards goal was made by her or any of her teammates. With Mallory Swanson out injured, the team looked disoriented. Swanson’s ability to drop back and involve herself in the attacking build-up is crucial for the Red Stars, and there was no one with the capability to fill her shoes on Saturday.

A seismic shift in momentum occurred after the break. Coach Donaldson himself would later admit that he got his initial tactics wrong, and thus a change was needed at halftime. Four substitutions would be made in the next 45 minutes, and each contributed positively to the Red Stars’ attack. The chances started to come in one after the other. Bike would flash a header wide, Ally Schlegel would rattle the crossbar, but no one could convert. Schlegel was replaced for the final 15 minutes by namesake Ally Cook, who created further opportunities, as did fellow substitute Jameese Joseph. None of this was ultimately enough for Chicago.

Red Stars’ First Defeat a Blessing in Disguise?

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It’s easy to forget that the Chicago Red Stars were the worst team in the country last year. They finished 12th on the NWSL table, hit record-low attendances, and dealt with injuries to their star players. Four games in to the 2024 season, and things are truly looking up. A 2-1-1 record from an entirely new squad is not a bad start whatsoever. The team is nearly fully fit (Swanson is returning this week), and the coaching staff are tactically flexible.

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Losing to Angel City does not negate any of the facts listed above. In fact, the defeat can ground the team and serve as a reminder that being top of the table was never the goal. The aim has to be qualifying for the NWSL Playoffs, and a minor hiccup won’t get in the way of that. It’s time for the Red Stars to take away some key lessons and bounce back next week. The opponent next week are the Seattle Reign, whom Chicago defeated in week two. That match will be the perfect opportunity to put three points on the board and get the train back on the tracks.

 

Photo Credit: Daniel Bartel-USA TODAY Sports, of a Chicago Red Stars Headshot and an Angel City FC Headshot, on April 13, 2024.

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