On Saturday afternoon, the Chicago Red Stars hosted the Washington Spirit in the first NWSL clash after a weekend off for an international break (during which the USWNT had a two-game stint in Europe). Chicago certainly looked to be the favorite to come out of this match with a result; they were healthy (only missing right back Arin Gilliland, out of the match with an excused absence), and they were firing on all cylinders. The Red Stars were riding a 5 game unbeaten streak into the FIFA break, and they were finally putting all the pieces together in front of goal, placing them second in the NWSL table. And they were facing a Washington team that was missing its most recent big signing in Mallory Pugh, who took a knock during the warm-ups of the USWNT’s second friendly during the international break. While they still had firepower in Francisca Ordega and Kristie Mewis, they looked like they could be frustrated against a stout Chicago defense.
The game started out with Chicago on the front foot, with a number of solid crosses allowing Red Stars forward Christen Press to get behind the Washington defense. Washington goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe showed her class throughout the match, and she was called upon in the early stages to make some decisive stops to keep her team in the match. She was also aided by a certain amount of disjointedness by Chicago. The Red Stars allowed the Spirit to have a lot of time on the ball, and their passes looked much more haphazard than the lethal combination play that saw them go unbeaten for the entire month of May. Julie Ertz was much less effective than in the past for Chicago sitting deep in the midfield, and Press couldn’t find the end of some questionable final passes going into the Washington box. The Chicago defense also allowed themselves to be pulled out of shape, and this hurt them when in the 42nd minute, both Chicago center-backs were drawn to the right side of the field, and Ortega was able to find an incredible amount of space behind them. She calmly and collectedly took a few steps in the Chicago box before driving a shot past Chicago keeper Alyssa Naeher to put the Spirit up 1-0 at the half.
The second half of the match found Chicago pushing for an equalizer, though as the minutes ticked on it became clear that it was unlikely to come from the run of play. While Chicago’s connectivity was improved from the first half, Washington held its defensive shape very well, and frustrated the Red Stars into taking shots from longer range than they would have preferred. It seemed like this would end up with the visitors taking the whole three points until Chicago defender Casey Short (who had had something of a rough game up until that point) sprung Christen Press free in the Washington box. Spirit defender Shelina Zadorsky came at Press with a rough tackle, and the Red Stars were awarded a penalty kick, which Press calmly put away in the 82nd minute. The game would ultimately end in a 1-1 draw, and Chicago would have to feel lucky to have gotten a point out of this one. Washington held itself together very well for a less experienced squad, but the Red Stars are going to have to do better if they want to contend for the NWSL trophy at the end of this year.