Now a two-year veteran of the NWSL, Chicago Red Stars midfielder Sofia Huerta has been a mainstay in the Chicago starting lineup for some time. A very productive presence for the team in both of her two years in the league, she contributed six goals in 2015, as well as seven in the 2016 season. Traveling with the Red Stars to participate in the Portland Spring Invitational, I got a chance to catch up with Huerta after a team breakfast on Saturday morning, one day before their opening pre-season match against Portland themselves.
We spoke a little bit about the team's approach to the preseason, and how this new challenge will assist their progress as the season begins.
“This is our first time playing other NWSL teams before the season actually starts.” Huerta said, “We usually just play college teams, like Notre Dame and Marquette. And last year, in our opening game against Houston, I think it was one of the slower starting seasons we had had, and Rory (Dames, Red Stars head coach) felt like it was really important that we got some NWSL matches before the season actually started, so this preseason has been approached a little differently. We’ve gotten into formational stuff sooner, (as well as) starting lineups, working on attacking rhythms and defensive shapes, so I would say the biggest difference with our preseason is we had to get into that quickly since we are playing such high competition right off the bat.”
“Portland is one of the most talented teams in the league. If you look at their individuals and their players, so going into that game, testing out formations and players, just seeing people play against Portland is going to be a big thing. Even just to see who can show up in that sense is going to be huge, because we do have a lot of new rookies, we do have players that need to prove themselves, so I think that will be a really big thing for us. Going into the game knowing it's our first game that we’ve played together as a group against one of the better teams in the league, we’re definitely taking it game by game, but especially this one is just about doing what we’ve been doing in preseason and hoping that it turns out well.”
(Our recap of that match can be found here).
Opportunities for consistency are key
Huerta’s personal offseason has also looked a little bit different than in the past. The Santa Clara alum spent the offseason playing for Adelaide United in the Australian W-League, where she notched eight goals and five assists, and she felt that was an invaluable part of her development as a player.
“It was, and this is maybe a bold statement, probably the best thing that I could do in terms of soccer. Just because my previous off-season as a rookie I continued to stay fit and work out but I wasn’t game fit, and I don’t think people understand how different that is. Running and lifting is good for you, but actually getting games in and having to be put into situations where you’re making decisions is a lot different from being line fit, (running up and down the 18 and back). So, for me personally, I just feel like I’m a little bit more ready to go this year. I feel fitter, I have more confidence on the ball since I have been playing for the last year and a half, so I think personally it was a really good move for me to play abroad, and I think it got me prepared for this season, both mentally and physically.”
That sort of year-round consistency has rolled into the 2017 preseason with the Red Stars, with the 2016 semifinalists picking up right where they left off. Huerta is no different.
“Now that I’m going into my third season and I’ve been playing with the same group of girls for a while, it is easy to come back and we know each other’s tendencies and are comfortable with each other, and it really does feel like we never left each other, honestly.”
In addition to her role on the field (“I would say right now I’m more of a midfielder,”) Huerta also commented on her evolving role as a third-year player in the league.
“I do feel like I’m a veteran, I’m one of the older ones on the team which is weird because I’m only 24, but it’s definitely a different role than I’ve taken on in my past two years and I’m excited about it. I have obvious goals of contributing as much to the Red Stars as I can. I have my own goals too, (such as) scoring more than I did last year, and just getting better as a player in every aspect is always a huge goal of mine, but contributing to the Red Stars is my main focus, because if I do that then other goals that I have in mind will come into place, but right now I’m focused on the Red Stars and playing well and hopefully I’ll get noticed in other ways.
These personal goals for the year have only been augmented by the opportunity for the Red Stars to have their international players playing with the club for the entire NWSL season, with the US Women’s national team not participating in any major international tournaments this summer.
“That’s something that’s really important," Huerta said, “because in previous years we’ve had two pre-seasons, the pre-season with just the club players, and then when the international players come back you kind of have to restart from the beginning, so the fact that they’re going to be here consistently for two months straight without having to leave, not only that does that give us more time to bond on the field but also off, so we’re spending more time with them and we’re learning more about them, which is hard to do when they’re constantly leaving, so I think that is actually a really good thing that they’ll be here more. Already you notice the difference with the fact that they’re here during (the 2017) preseason because I’m pretty sure in the previous years they weren’t here that much so it’s been good so far.”
Forming a local connection and growing with the league
The wide-open nature of this year has also opened up the opportunity for the Red Stars themselves to try to put a stronger cultural footprint on the Chicago sports scene, starting with a rebranding of the Red Stars shield.
“I talked to our owner about it,” Huerta said, “and it was just a move that we needed to make. Chicago is such a big sports city, and it’s unfortunate but a lot of people really don’t know about us, and we feel like that was a move that we needed to make, and start a new brand. The past two years we’ve made it to the playoffs, and obviously, that’s a good accomplishment, but now we’re really reaching for that final and winning the championship and what better way to start it off with just a new logo and a new brand moving forward.”
She also only had positive things to say about the rising level of professionalism in the league, for example, the Red Stars’ full-time move to Toyota Park. “I think we feel more like professionals, it’s a more professional environment, and that’s only a positive thing,” as well as her participation in the NWSL’s premiere TV deal with the Lifetime network.
“The coolest thing for me, personally, is that when I did go to that Lifetime (promo) shoot, the Lifetime people I was working with were really excited about having us on, and giving the NWSL more exposure, and the coolest part was that it’s not just us who want to bring exposure to the NWSL, it’s other people that you wouldn’t really expect. So I think it’s really important that the games of the week, and the semifinal and the final (be televised).”
“A lot of us, I would say most of us, aren’t playing in our hometown, we aren’t playing in front of our families, so any way that they can watch, and obviously they have YouTube, but it does make it a little bit more professional when it’s streamed on a television station so I think Lifetime will be a big move for us.”
All in all, Huerta is excited for another productive summer in Chicago, as well as some time to explore her favorite things about the city.
“The food in Chicago is great, it’s a very social city especially in the summer,” Huerta commented, “It's always fun to be with teammates or friends or anyone you’ve become close within the city, and go eat together and explore because there are so many things to do even just outdoors. Everyone in Chicago is really, really nice – yeah I love everything about Chicago. I would just say being with my friends and going out to the city and doing whatever we desire because there are so many options, there are so many things to do in Chicago.”
The Red Stars will be playing the Dash on Wednesday, March 29th as part of their ongoing preseason. The Red Stars official season opener is at BBVA Compass Stadium against Dash on April 15th, 1:00 pm CT.