For Women's Professional Soccer fans in Chicago, I have some good news and some bad news, and the events and circumstances of today's home 3-2 loss to Brazilian superstar Marta and FC Gold Pride of the San Francisco Bay Area encapsulate all that is both good and bad for women's soccer in Chicago this season.
Ella Masar is becoming a legitimate superstar. Masar has gone from a sparingly used substitute in her rookie year out of the University of Illinois last year, to the club's leading scorer this year, tallying her seventh and eighth goals of the season today, tying the match both times.
The rest of Chicago's offense has been disappointing. Weapons such as Megan Rapinoe, who often produces points for the U.S. Women's National Team and was involved in scoring last season, has been conspicuously unproductive this season, with no goals and only two assists.
With only three goals and two assists, Brazilian international Cristiane, last year's team scoring leader, has not matched the production of last season, and has missed many golden opportunities.
Few Red Stars have scored at all this season. Only four current team members have hit the back of the nets. Masar leads the pack by a mile, followed by Cristiane, and then Casey Nogueira with two, and English international Karen Carney with one.
Swedish international Kosovare Asllani notched two goals before leaving the club by "mutual agreement" to start preparing for the World Cup with her national team.
Chicago has not been able to take advantage of the raw offensive potential available in its roster this season and has made some curious personnel moves, further depressing offensive output.
U.S. international Lindsay Tarpley, the club's second leading scorer in '09, was traded to now-defunct St. Louis for goal keeper Jillian Loyden. Tarpley, now a key factor in the resurgence of the Boston Breakers, has made Chicago pay dearly for letting her go, drawing blood against her former team in their last meeting.
In addition to Tarpley, midfielder Brittany Klein, one of last year's offensive producers and a member of the league's initial All-Star Game, was cut to make room for Anita Asante, after the St. Louis franchise folded. After six unremarkable appearances for Chicago, Asante was traded to Washington for the rights to Nigerian international Faith Ikidi, for 2011.
Klein would have certainly contributed more than Asante, due to some key defensive injuries in the final stretch. Brittany could have easily been the difference between wins and draws or losses during Chicago's current eight-game winless streak.
Chicago appears to have found someone who could provide that necessary extra offensive punch. The Red Stars quickly signed Spanish international Veronica Boquete after she led the Buffalo Flash to a W-League title, scoring the winning goal and earning MVP honors.
After playing sparingly in one match, Boquete has been deactivated due to problems with her visa. And though Head Coach Omid Namazi predicted she'd be available to play in Washington, she wasn't, and still wasn't available for today's match. The club has not commented on her status, or whether it can be resolved before the end of the season.
The Red Stars moved quickly to sack Head Coach Emma Hayes early in the club's second season, when after 6 matches, the club had only 4 points and seemed to have lost focus and faith. Immediately the club showed impressive resurgence, defeating FC Gold Pride in their first post-Hayes match, and went on an undefeated streak under new Head Coach Omid Namazi, beginning with a draw against Atlanta the following week.
Under Hayes, the Red Stars had never come from behind to win or tie. They made two come from behind recoveries early in Namazi's tenure. Focus and confidence seemed to improve and offensive production improved at least slightly, as well as final outcomes. In 15 matches under Namazi, the Red Stars have earned 17 points, averaging more than one point per match. Under Hayes the average was .75 points per match.
As the season progressed, the club seemed to regress to its old ways of being unable to recover from early deficits, of losing focus, and making poor shot selection. It seems fair to suggest that the club's modest and spotty improvement under Namazi is not, in itself, sufficient to earn him another season at the helm. The club's current winless streak of eight encompasses more than half the games played under Namazi's tutelage.
After spending much of the season atop WPS with fewest goals allowed and most shut-outs, Red Stars keeper Jillian Loyden remains in second place in both categories.
Much of the credit for Loyden's handsome stats is probably due the Red Stars defense. When the defense has lapsed and Loyden has faced the ultimate challenge of a one-on-one situation, she has not been impressive, with a few notable exceptions, such as a save late in today's match on the Bay Area's Christine Sinclair, when the score was still tied 2-2.
Any good defense can make a keeper look good, but the true test is a keeper's ability to make her defense look good, to save their backsides when they lapse, to stop more of those breakaway shots than get by her.
Is Loyden a decent keeper? Certainly. She deserves to start at this level. But is she as good as her stats? Probably not. And for a team like the Red Stars, with poor offensive output, that's a problem.
Chicago remains mathematically eligible for the playoffs. With two games remaining, and with Sky Blue FC defeating Philadelphia today, Washington and Sky Blue are currently knotted in fourth place with 25 points. Chicago trails with 21 points. If Chicago wins both their remaining games (one of which is head to head vs. Washington and both are at home) and Sky Blue and Washington earn no more than one additional point (from a draw), Chicago would finish alone in fourth place and squeak through.
While mathematically eligible, one wonders if the team is psychologically capable of making the postseason.
When Coach Hayes was sacked, the front office announced they would do whatever it takes to get the Red Stars to the playoffs. Considering that four of seven clubs make the cut, and that two of the seven are expansion teams, it should not have been an impossible dream for the Red Stars to be playing after Labor Day.
But it now appears to be as unlikely with two games remaining as it did last season at the same point. Certain clubs, such as Boston, are charging hard. Certain clubs, such as Washington and Sky Blue, are able to win the must-win matches to stay in position, but Chicago is not.
Attendance at today's match, as was the case for Marta's trip to Toyota Park at the end of last season, was an impressive season high.
Today's attendance of 6,089 is nearly two thousand less than last season's high water mark, despite the fact that today the Red Stars are still in playoff contention and last season, they had already been eliminated when Marta made her only appearance in Chicago in the season's final home match.
The Red Stars have averaged approximately 1,000 less per game than last season, and this is also consistent with the rest of the league. While sponsorships are up around the league and in Chicago, one can't help but worry about the league's and the club's staying power, knowing that it takes around 5,000 fans on average to maintain a positive cash flow, excluding major sponsorships.
Analysis and Recommendations
Coach Omid Namazi should be put on notice by the management. Playoffs or perish! It's as simple as that. There's no excuse for the club making poor shot selection, getting burned on the counter-attack, or giving up when they fall behind. At first, we thought Namazi had fixed all that, but now it seems he hasn't, or at least couldn't keep it fixed for the long haul.
The club has been within striking distance of the playoffs, and briefly had possession of the fourth spot. Its inability to hold its position is primarily a coaching issue.
We know the talent is there. The team has yet to realize anything close to their full potential in their two-year history. That remains true even under Namazi.
He is accountable for that, and does not necessarily deserve another season to do better. If he can't get the Red Stars into the postseason this year, I see no evidence that he is likely to be any more successful with a full season next year.
And if he is replaced, who should replace him? I suggest a woman. I think it is reprehensible that in Women's Professional Soccer, only one club (Sky Blue FC) has a female head coach. I would look for the best female coach from the college ranks or possibly someone from the international circuit. Whomever it is, it needs to be someone who is noted for creating and maintaining team chemistry, motivation, and discipline.
The Red Stars have made 17 roster changes in 2010. I challenge anyone to prove to me that the sum total of those changes is a positive result. As I said, we gave up a solid scorer in Lindsay Tarpley and an All-Star midfielder who always contributed on both sides of the pitch in Brittany Klein.
I can't name one player who passed through Chicago this season who made as great an impact as either of them. In fact, Tarpley was conspicuously missed on offense, especially after the departure of Asllani, and Klein was missed, especially on defense, especially after injuries and personnel changes resulted in a very shallow defensive talent pool.
The biggest frustration about personnel changes is that they could have been much better. With the demise of the Los Angeles franchise before the season and the St. Louis club early in the season, there were key players available who could have ensured Chicago a playoff berth. They were left on the table for whatever reason. They include keeper Hope Solo, midfielder Shannon Boxx, defender Stephanie Cox, and top rookie Brittany Bock, among others.
The Red Stars did acquire rookie Casey Nogueira from the L.A. dispersal draft. Nogueira has added depth and nuance to Chicago's attack, but when one considers the talent Chicago passed over to make Nogueira the fourth pick in the dispersal draft, it leaves the dreamers thinking of what might have been.
When St. Louis folded, Chicago had a second shot at Shannon Boxx, who St. Louis had acquired by trading several players to Atlanta for the first pick in the dispersal draft. They also had an opportunity to sign Hope Solo in goal.
One has to suspect that Chicago's failure to capitalize on these opportunities was more of a financial decision than a strategic one. At least we'll give President and General Manager Marcia McDermott the benefit of the doubt on that point.
Perhaps the most curious management decision was in the hiring of Namazi in the first place. Taking nothing from Namazi who has had some success in WUSA and MISL, there were others available. Jorge Barcellos of St. Louis was there for the taking. The timing of Hayes sacking just prior to the St. Louis announcement led some pundits to speculate that the decision was coordinated to benefit from Barcellos's imminent availability.
Barcellos did good work with St. Louis last season, getting them to the playoffs, despite having less overall talent than the Red Stars. But he was passed over.
For that matter, after leading the club to a 1-0 win over league-leading FC Gold Pride in her one game as acting Head Coach, McDermott should have more seriously considered hiring herself as coach, at least to finish out the season. She knew the players, and was obviously able to rally the troops for an impressive showing while the door was still swinging in Hayes's former office.
So when one considers the opportunities available to Chicago to acquire the best coaching and player talent available, and the fact that they did neither, one has to wonder, as the "Saturday Night Live" musical sketch goes, "Ooooh-eeeee, what's up with that?"
What now? There are certain players who should be retained. These are players who have demonstrated the desire to be a team player and at the same time have the ability to lead, to take risks, and an unwillingness to quit.
I would include Ella Masar, Marian Dalmy, Karen Carney, Katie Chapman, Formiga, Casey Nogueira, Natalie Spilger, Kate Markgraf, and Whitney Engen, although I might trade Nogueira or Engen or both if the opportunity to gain a prolific scorer or a first tier keeper were to present itself. Everyone else would be on the cusp and on the trading block.
Even Megan Rapinoe? She's the first one I'd trade. And I say that as a fan and hopefully a friend of Rapinoe. She is a prolific scorer on the national team, but has not been equally productive in Chicago. It is either an issue of chemistry or coaching—probably both—but I'm guessing she would be tempting trade bait, and if she were to go for a Hope Solo or Karina LeBlanc, that would be a win/win for both teams and both players.
As long as Chicago is one of the weakest offensive teams in WPS, it should be their first priority to sign a world class keeper. Whether they are able to trade for Hope Solo or Karina LeBlanc, or whether they have to look internationally, they need the best keeper available, and need to do whatever is necessary to free up one of the world's top five keepers.
If you have a keeper who has a goals-allowed average of less than one, you don't have to score as much. Such a keeper, with the Red Stars current defense, would be a deadly combination. It would give Chicago the luxury of time to build a potent offense.
Without a world-class keeper, it is necessary to acquire at least one, and probably two high potency scorers, and in order to do so, it will be necessary to trade away some of our defensive strength.
The best case scenario would be to acquire someone of the caliber of Solo or LeBlanc, by trading Rapinoe or Cristiane, and hope that youngsters such as Masar, Nogueira, and Boquete, along with Carney and Chapman, can pull together to increase offensive output enough to outscore goals-allowed. A one goal-for average is sufficient if you have less than a goal allowed each week, and would be a huge improvement over the past two seasons.
The Red Stars need to leave Toyota Park. I've said this before, more than once. Just as MLS clubs worked to get out of those "cavernous" NFL stadiums and into soccer only venues as quickly as they could, the WPS needs to continue to develop the women's soccer venue.
There are a number of factors that contribute to a drop in attendance in Chicago and around the league. There's the economy, of course, and the second year let-down which often happens after the new-car smell is gone, no matter what business you're in.
But I am convinced that the right size and design of a venue has a significant role in maximizing the gate. Even on days like today when the south stands at Toyota Park are full or nearly so, the view from the south stands is a larger, taller section of the stadium that is closed.
One sits looking at a huge wall of empty seats on the opposite side of the pitch. That can't help crowd enthusiasm, and it certainly could have a subliminal influence on the fans who do attend, depressing their interest in attending more games.
One of the principles of venue design is to avoid making the venue too large or too small. If it is too small, people will assume there's no room after a while, and attendance will drop below capacity.
If it is too large, people will have the feeling that events aren't well attended, even when they are, by relative metrics, and will feel less enthusiasm at the park and show less interest throughout the season because "nobody goes."
The key is to design a venue that feels intimate, yet big enough, that creates a sense of close community and high enthusiasm among those in attendance. The crowd needs to be concentrated so that crowd noise is actually noisy, and people are close enough together to feed off each other's passion.
The venue needs to be sized in order that the typical crowd will nearly but not quite fill the seats, but will sell-out once or twice each season. Having enough seats for a typical match, but not quite enough seats to satisfy maximum demand is perfect, since the possibility of a sell-out accelerates and increases ticket sales for the games that would not normally sell-out. Having a sell-out or two each season creates an image of success.
You also want a design in which fans are close to the action and feel a certain sense of intimacy with the performers.
Finally, you want a design that can be easily added to without ruining its ambience in any of the above aspects. In other words, you need a venue the club can grow with, but can fit into comfortably from day one.
Whether it is an enhanced, enlarged college venue such as Benedictine University, or the ideal solution-- a newly constructed specially designed venue on an existing entertainment or atheletic campus-- the Red Stars should have their own home.
Yes it will cost money to create a proper venue, but we can assume in the long run it would be cheaper than the cost of using Toyota Park at a fraction of its capacity.
It will also cost money to get the right talent, on the pitch and in the coach's office.
But I believe these recommendations are the best way forward for the Chicago Red Stars franchise.
Perhaps the bigger question, and the bigger concern for fans is whether the league can afford to open for a third season, after sustaining financial losses beyond expectations in 2010, or if so, can they outlast the WUSA, and open for a fourth season and beyond.
We can only hope the answers to all of those questions are yes. And a "yes" answer is always good news.
Chicago Red Stars (5-11-6) vs. FC Gold Pride (13-3-4)
Sunday, August 22, 2010 — TOYOTA PARK
BAY: Marta 14 (Ali Riley) 8'
CHI: Ella Masar 7 (Cristiane) 18'
BAY: Rachel Buehler 1 (Tiffeny Milbrett) 33'
CHI: Ella Masar 8 (Marian Dalmy) 61'
BAY: Marta 15 (Penalty Kick) 79'
CHICAGO RED STARS — Jillian Loyden, Marian Dalmy, Natalie Spilger, Whitney Engen, Formiga, Lydia Vandenbergh (Nikki Washington, 85'), Katie Chapman (Karen Carney, 74'), Cristiane, Ella Masar, Megan Rapinoe, Casey Nogueira