After clinching a playoff spot for the fourth straight year, the Chicago Red Stars talked about how different this year’s team is from the previous three that lost in the semifinals.
It now also appears the semifinal itself could be drastically different given the impact Hurricane Florence is projected to have on North Carolina.
The shield-winning North Carolina Courage are set to host the semifinal against the Red Stars on Sunday. Hurricane Florence is projected to make landfall in North Carolina as a Category 4 hurricane Friday.
The Courage’s home stadium, WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C., is inland enough that it won’t get the worst of the storm, but nearby North Carolina and North Carolina State college football teams already canceled home games set for Saturday.
“Right now we’re just monitoring it and it’s too early to talk about any other contingency plans,” NWSL spokesman Patrick Donnelly said on Monday.
North Carolina spokesman Marco Rosa echoed Donnelly, saying, “It’s too early to say because changes will come by the minute.” The Courage did send out a news released saying they are “monitoring the situation.”
And a spokesman for the Red Stars said the club is looking into “many different options” with the league and the Courage. Those different options include alternative means of transportation, “including different airports to fly into and drive to.” Beyond basic safety concerns, the travel logistics won’t be simple.
Red Stars owner Arnim Whisler tweeted a response to a report that the club offered Toyota Park as a potential host venue for the match.
its complex: safety, TV window, negative revenue hit for NC, travel considerations and final 6 days later… Just me, I prioritize 1. max exposure (espn2!), 2. ensure best play possible (great field), 3. ensure final is fair (don't disadvantage this semi winner).
— arnim (@arnimiii) September 11, 2018
However the game gets played, the Red Stars are hoping to get past the semifinal for the first time. After three consecutive semifinal defeats, leading goal scorer Christen Press was traded in a mega-deal for 2017 NWSL MVP Sam Kerr during the offseason. In June, starters Sofia Huerta, Sam Johnson and Taylor Comeau were traded away and Morgan Brian was re-acquired after she returned from Europe.
“It was always going to be a different year,” coach Rory Dames said. “Then we took the injuries that we had at the beginning of the year. So that definitely made it a different year, although I think we’re stronger for it in the end.”
Dames said the changes were brought on in part due to the three semifinal failures.
“Obviously, three times in a row it didn’t work,” he said. “That doesn’t mean it will work this year, but I think we’re in a better place.”
The Red Stars won just two of the first 11 matches (with six draws mixed in). They went 7-1-4 after that to clinch a playoff spot with a match to spare. The only loss during that stretch was to the Courage, a 4-1 result in a midweek game on the road, which was the second of three matches in seven days for the Red Stars.
The two teams also had a pair of 1-1 draws, one at each stadium, during the regular season.
“It’s a team-first team,” Dames said of this year’s Red Stars. “I know that’s what you’re supposed to say and that’s what you want, but it really is. Julie (Ertz) and Sam are the tip of the sword for our team, along with Alyssa (Naeher). And those guys epitomize that. So when your most influential players are all about the group, it just kind of spreads and it’s contagious.”
Only five players remain from the Red Stars’ first playoff berth in 2015. Two of those players, Alyssa Mautz and Arin Gilliland, both commented on how different this year’s group is from the others.
“I feel like this one is a little different,” Mautz said. “Just as a group we feel more as a family, and it’s a great group.”
Gilliland said she’s bonded better with her teammates this season than any previous year and “it’s showing on the field. It’s so great to be able to come out there and feel like we’re playing the best, I think, we’ve played in four years.”
Pro Soccer USA writer Hannah Withiam contributed to this report.