Alright Red Stars, we need to talk. Look, you were doing so well throughout the season, especially without your national team players away at the World Cup, but now with the end of the season in sight and playoffs within reach, it's time to look at something that's really bothering me (besides the embarrassing goal against Portland). One win from the last seven games is bad enough, but dropping five points from three goals conceded after the 80th minute in that span is criminal when chasing first place and building momentum for the post season. Let's take a look at what's going wrong.
Keeping Calm Under Pressure
Let's start all the way back to July 25th when the Red Stars were on their way to earn another three points against Washington Spirit to add to the gap atop the standings. Chicago held a 1-0 lead after a Christen Press opening goal in the 30th minute and attempted to close the game out. Let's take a look at Vanessa DiBernardo who finds time and space with the ball to keep valuable possession alive. Red Stars captain Lori Chalupny shows for the easy ball, while Press makes herself available, likely for a give and go behind the defense, with Sofia Huerta occupying empty space as the secondary release. However, DiBernardo's eyes are locked on a deeper, longer range target.
This is the first critical mistake and where inexperience shows for DiBernardo as she releases for Arin Gilliland as Francisca Ordega quickly closes down the space and fights for the ball. The Red Star defense should still be in decent shape outnumbering the Spirit attack six to three should they lose possession, although league leading goalscorer Crystal Dunn (navy blue #2) all alone in the middle of the frame should cause concern.
Ordega wins the ball from Gilliland and the second ball battle in midfield against Chalupny giving the Spirit an opportunity to counterattack. The webcast direction fails us here as we only see Amanda DaCosta immediately rushing toward goal with Christine Nairn supporting to provide a delayed run at goal. We can't see how the other players react to the change of possession.
Here's where the next critical development for the Red Stars happens as Nairn lines up a long distance attempt at goal from around the same spot Press scored earlier roughly 25-30 yards out. The camera angle is too tight for a clear picture and too fast to get the exact frame I wanted (Thank you for having a slow motion option, MLSLive), but Nairn fakes out Danielle Colaprico's last ditch slide tackle to block the attempt. With a wider camera angle, we may have been able to see how these three things developed:
1. The effect of DaCosta's run, if any, dragging the back line out of position.
2. Colaprico defending the center of the midfield without cover as Chalupny remains behind the play after losing the 50-50 ball.
3. DiBernardo not dropping into the midfield in Chalupny's place after Ordega releases the pass to Nairn.
Regardless, Colaprico going to ground without cover is an ill-advised risk. Merely closing down the space may not have been enough at that distance away from the shooter to thwart the danger, but losing an all in bet from a desperate position prompted the scrambling Red Stars centerbacks to double down on the next shot attempt.
With Nairn ready to release her real shot, both Julie Johnston and Samantha Johnson close her down leaving space behind them right in front of the goal. Ideally, Johnson would close down with Johnston covering, as goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc cheats toward her near post and Johnson would eliminate the far post angle. But with the Spirit attack keeping its momentum, there's no time to decide, and it's better for both of them to react rather than neither of them.
The ball deflects off Johnston fortuitously to Dunn, who manages to find the space occupied by the centerbacks for a clear look at goal. Gilliland does a great job sticking with Dunn deny space for the shot, and even gets a piece of it, but it unfortunately manages to be a deflection that beats LeBlanc at her near post.
This sequence began with DiBernardo making a high-risk, long distance pass back to the defensive third when easier, safer options away from goal available. Taking care of the ball is absolutely critical to managing close games late and giveaways in the defensive half put immense strain on the tired defense. The Red Stars did well to scramble after Gilliland lost the ball, but the chain reaction had already started and a dangerous attempt at goal became inevitable.
Keeping Track of Wide Danger
This match against Kansas City FC comes the week after the collapse against Washington. This being a home game and after the burn of a late goal the week before, one would expect a better performance in the latter stage of the match. Unfortunately, that was not the case again.
So we see Kansas City take a throw-in late in the match with the Red Stars forming a defensive shell around Heather O'Reilly who receives the throw without immediate pressure and Lauren Holiday making a run to the corner for a pass down the touchline.
Julie Johnston pressures Holiday as she catches up to the through ball and everyone else follows the play completely abandoning O'Reilly. One of the players from the defensive shell needs to stay behind to track one of the most dangerous players on the team and a USWNT veteran.
This sequence is framed so poorly it is hard to see what is happening in the box. This isn't a provocative stylistic framing choice like on Mr. Robot (highly recommended viewing if you aren't already watching, BTW). Anyway, we can't see the movement developing in the box or if a side has a numerical advantage. We do see Frances Silva making a run towards goal, though.
O'Reilly receives the pass with too much space allowed by the Red Stars midfield. She will have plenty of time to touch, look up, and pick out a target. Again, it's too hard to tell who is marking whom, but the Red Stars' centerbacks aren't marking anyone. Johnston is still out by the corner after defending Holiday and Abby Erceg is floating around atop the six-yard box.
By the time O'Reilly attempts the cross, no one is standing in front of her and the goal and the nearest defender is still three yards away. Meanwhile, Sarah Hagen starts her run to the far post.
Hagan wins the header at the far post as she loses her mark and beats the defender, who had to slide over to cover, at the far post. This is a perfect cross to the top of the six-yard box right in front of goal. The type of cross O'Reilly can make all day with no pressure at all.
When goals like this happen, we often look at the defender's marking or the goalkeeper's decision of whether to come off the line, but these issues would not come in to play if the midfielders properly tracked the opposition, especially one of the most dangerous players on the field.
Step Up and Stay in Line
Our last late goal to look at comes from last Sunday against the same Washington Spirit as league leading goal scorer Crystal Dunn nets the winner in the 92nd minute. This lost result would send the Red Stars down to their current position in third place behind Washington and eight points behind league leaders Seattle.
This sequence begins with a low-percentage long ball from the Spirit's defensive third that the Red Stars defense should easily recover. However, Dunn's speed puts pressure on Michelle Lomnicki, so instead of an easy recovery and pass to the goalkeeper to regain possession, Lomnicki has to put the ball out of touch conceding possession to the Spirit in their attacking third.
The defense recovers quickly and appears to be in position to defend the throw-in. It is taken quick and immediately passed back to Dunn. Lomnicki closes down Dunn immediately and Arin Gilliland leaves her marker to double team Dunn. Meanwhile, we see only one Spirit attacker in the box attentively marked by Taryn Hemmings.
Dunn attempts to power through the double team as Amanda DaCosta makes a run in the box. Abby Erceg tightly marks Spirit attacker Ngozi Okobi with Hemmings closer to goal and ready to clear away a far post cross.
The Red Stars defense drops deep to prevent any dangerous runs behind the line, but concede all the space at the top of the box. Dunn knows if she can get to the top of the box, she can get a dangerous shot off. At this point, Gilliland has to put pressure on Dunn to stop her, or at least make her pass the ball where the organized defense can intercept. Erceg, however, breaks the defensive line following Okobi's run instead of letting Okobi run offside.
Gilliland does apply pressure, but it's not aggressive enough as Dunn easily outruns it and continues her dribble. Melissa Tancredi is a peach of a forward who tracks all the way back to apply further pressure on Dunn's shot. Unfortunately for the Red Stars, Okobi's run works as she drags Erceg completely out of position opening a huge window through which Dunn can shoot.
Tancredi is too late to block the shot (nice to see the effort from a forward, though!), and Karina LeBlanc is very late to cover the far post. All while Dunn dribbled centrally, LeBlanc stuck tight to her near post, possibly screened by her defenders, and reacted far too late to the shot. As for the shot itself, sure enough, right through the huge window vacated by Erceg. Dunn did all the hard work, but Okobi is the unsung hero for opening the space for the shot.
With only three games left of the season, the Red Stars should still qualify for the playoffs, but the battle for the top position they were winning before these dropped points has been long lost. Thankfully, the Red Stars play two of the last three games at home on Sunday, August 23rd in Lisle and Sunday, September 6th at Toyota Park. Go support your Red Stars as they will have hopefully fixed the problems leading to these late game collapses.