With the North Carolina Courage and Chicago Red Stars set to face off in the semifinal playoff match tonight, we spoke with Claire Watkins and Sandra Herrera from Hot Time in Old Town to get their take on the revamped Red Stars lineup.
DSS: Last season Chicago reinvented Julie Ertz as a midfielder which Jill Ellis adopted. Then this year you moved her back to CB. How do you feel about the change in position and Ertz’s impact on the season so far?
HTIOT (Sandra): It was a move made out of necessity, but one that has paid off, both in 2017 as a DM and in 2018 as CB. However, here’s a take, Julie Ertz is a better center back then defensive mid. With the departure of Sam Johnson and the arrival of Morgan Brian, it changed how the team lined up on the pitch. Having to shape a midfield of 3ish players with 4 to 6 options was always going to be difficult and have someone out of place. From a club perspective, her return to the backline has allowed for a more cohesive midfield for Chicago down the stretch of their season. In locking up things on defense for the Red Stars, you see the best players in their best positions on the pitch all at once, playing some of their best soccer this season.
DSS: During the offseason you effectively traded Sam Kerr for Christen Press. How do you feel that trade has worked out for the Red Stars?
HTIOT (Sandra): Full disclosure, not seeing Christen Press in the postseason is truly weird, and there have been many times where I wondered what Press would like in a team with a healthy (Yuki) Nagasato and Brian.
But since the trade, Sam Kerr coming to Chicago has brought a different energy to the team. It is visible and palpable at times on the pitch. If the measurement is the Red Stars getting into the final, the jury is still out. But if the measurement is goals? Mission Over Accomplished.
DSS: With so many changes happening during the year (Kerr, Ertz, Short, and DiBernardo starting away from the team, trading away Huerta and Johnson during the season), do you worry about the chemistry of the Red Stars in this match?
HTIOT (Claire): In terms of roles on the field? Not necessarily. I think the reshuffling of the roster has actually solidified where everyone is best used (Ertz in defense, DiBernardo drifting on the left, etc), without feeling like Chicago is shoving players into a system in order to get the highest amount of talent on the field. But I do think it’s worth noting that even though the Red Stars have now fine-tuned their style of play, they have fewer reps than a team like North Carolina in actually seeing how that plays out in games. It felt sometimes like Chicago went through two or three pre-seasons this year, and though the final run of games against top opposition in the regular season helped quite a bit, I’m not sure the Red Stars would quite consider themselves to be operating like clockwork just yet. This semi-final would be a great opportunity for them to start.
DSS: Outside of Kerr, Ertz, and Naeher, most of the Chicago players aren’t well known outside of Chicago circles. Who is the underrated player that the Courage should look out for?
HTIOT (Claire): In the last meeting of these two teams (that ended in a 1-1 draw), the coherence in the Chicago midfield was key to giving the Red Stars chances against a very dynamic Courage back-line, so I’m tempted to defer to their importance on Tuesday night. However, I’m going to fight that impulse and go with Julie Ertz’s center-back partner, Katie Naughton. At her best, Naughton is one of the best center-backs in the league, and she is going to be instrumental in holding North Carolina’s offense to as few scoring opportunities as possible, and she’s shown in recent months that she has the ability to do so. She’s also a target on Red Stars set pieces that could go unnoticed if the Courage get too wrapped up in marking Ertz. If Chicago is going to be able to stay in this game, Naughton is going to have to hold it down, and North Carolina should be wary of her ability to do so.