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Chicago Red Stars hope for better result in fifth consecutive NWSL semifinal

Coach Rory Dames thinks a few differences this year will help his team get past that barrier.

Red Stars forward Yuki Nagasato celebrates with teammates after scoring a penalty against the Portland Thorns. April 20, 2019. (Courtesy Chicago Red Stars)

The Chicago Red Stars have lost in the National Women’s Soccer League semifinals the past four years. Coach Rory Dames is hoping a few differences this year will help his team get past that barrier.

For one, the Red Stars are playing at home. The Portland Thorns are coming to SeatGeek Stadium for Sunday’s 3:30 p.m. ET semifinal. The Red Stars have gone on the road for three of the team’s four semifinal defeats, including each of the last three years.

“One of our big goals this year was to try to play a home game in the playoffs,” Dames said during a conference call Wednesday. “We know how hard it is to play on the road in the playoffs. We were able to accomplish that goal this year.”

Another difference is how the Red Stars are playing entering the postseason. The Red Stars won the final five regular season games to put themselves in position to host the semifinal.

The Red Stars lost the regular season finale the last two years. In 2016, the Red Stars won one of their final four matches heading into the playoffs. In 2015, the Red Stars entered the postseason with one win in their final eight matches.

“The group is in a really good spot physically,” Dames said. “The group is in a really good spot mentally.”

On top of that, the Red Stars enter well-rested. They were the odd team that didn’t play the final week of the NWSL regular season. The international break was the week before that. When the Red Stars take the field Sunday, it will be for the first time in 22 days.

Dames said his team is fresh after years where they have “limped” into the playoffs.

“Now a new season starts,” he said. “We had a three-week build to the game.”

As for the matchup itself, simply put, the Thorns have owned the Red Stars. The Red Stars have one win against the Thorns ever, and that was all the way back in 2013. The all-time series is 10 Portland wins, 1 Chicago win and nine draws.

The teams played a thrilling 4-4 draw in the second week of the season in Bridgeview, Ill., before Portland picked up a pair of 3-0 wins at home. This one won’t be in Portland, but Dames is still well aware of the matchup history.

“I think they just have good teams,” Dames said. “We’ve been in some games. We’ve let some games get away. We’ve played them on short rest a couple times and blah, blah, blah.”

The two teams have never met in the postseason.

Portland will make its fourth consecutive playoff appearance. The previous three semifinals were all at home.

The Thorns also slumped to end the season. Portland lost three games in the first 19 of the season, then lost three of the final five and scored just one goal during that span.

“We finished the season in a position that’s not normal to us,” Portland coach Mark Parsons said. “We have this chip on our shoulder.”

Parsons said there is less pressure on his group because they are on the road. The Red Stars are still trying to get past the semifinal hump and have a talented roster.

Sam Kerr won the Golden Boot with a record 18 goals. Yuki Nagasato led the league with eight assists and also scored eight goals. Defender Casey Short was on the team of the month every month of the season. Julie Ertz and Alyssa Naeher played starring roles in a World Cup title. If the Red Stars are to finally win a semifinal, this year looks like as good of a chance as any.

Said Dames: “We’re looking forward to putting on a good show and trying to kick down that door and get into the final.”

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