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After four straight semifinal defeats, Chicago Red Stars finally get over the hump

Vanessa DiBernardo: “We’ve had four other semifinals so we’re used to the pressure, we know what to expect and I think that’s big.”

The Chicago Red Stars celebrate their 1-0 win against the Portland Thorns in an NWSL semifinal on Oct. 20, 2019 from SeatGeek Stadium in Bridegview, Ill. (ISI Photography/Chicago Red Stars)

BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. Each year the Chicago Red Stars return to the NWSL playoffs, the questions about winning in the playoffs and getting past the semifinal barrier became more prominent.

Each year, the players and coach Rory Dames would be asked about how they could reach the final. After four straight defeats, they had to face the reality that until they won a semifinal, the questions would remain.

The Red Stars were finally able to answer those questions in a definitive way Sunday with a 1-0 win against the Portland Thorns. The memories of four straight semifinal losses may still linger for some, but now it’s about the next step.

“It’s nice to be able to finally get there,” Dames said. “We’ve been close, but I’d be lying if I said that we’ve accomplished all that we want to do this year.”

Dames has been the coach all five years, but most of the roster has turned over. Only four active Red Stars were on the first playoff team in 2015: Vanessa DiBernardo, Danielle Colaprico, Julie Ertz and Arin Wright. Wright was unavailable due to illness, while the other three started Sunday.

For DiBernardo, the win was more about excitement than relief. She noted how things were different late in the season. The Red Stars entered the playoffs on a five-match winning streak.

“We’ve finished out this season on a high and I think in the past it’s always kind of not been like that so this year’s a little bit different,” DiBernardo said. “We just tell ourselves that every year is different. It’s a different team. It’s a different year. The playoffs in the past are so different. It’s exciting to just get over the hump.”

So what was different about this team that allowed them to get over that hump?

“I don’t think there’s anything specific,” DiBernardo said. “We’ve had this core group for so long and we’ve been able to grow together and play well together. Being able to keep that chemistry is huge. We’ve had four other semifinals so we’re used to the pressure, we know what to expect and I think that’s big.”

Sam Kerr, the lone goal scorer Sunday, is in her second year with the Red Stars. For her, the sting of a playoff defeat is concentrated on last year. Kerr recalled last year’s 2-0 loss to the North Carolina Courage.

The Red Stars will face the Courage again, but this time it will be in the final.

“I think honestly last year, the loss in the semifinal, we feel like we kind of let ourselves down,” Kerr said. “We had worked so hard. Everyone just came back with a different mentality that this is going to be our year. We’ve stuck together. People have come in and out all year. It’s just been about the team. We’ve got a lot of big personalities in our team, but no big egos. I think that’s really unique in this team and, like I said, we totally deserved to be there and I’m so happy to be a part of it.”

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