Surging Red Stars ready for home opener
The city of Chicago meets its newest sports team Sunday as Women's Professional Soccer's Red Stars host Sky Blue FC (NJ/NY) at Toyota Park. It's the third game of the season for the Red Stars, who are 1-0-1 and in second place in WPS after beating St. Louis and tying Washington in two road games to start the season.
"We came away with four points," said Red Stars forward Ella Masar via phone. "We didn't get a loss. I think we did what we needed to do. We just showed we're going to go out and play every game to the best of our abilities, and so far we've done just that."
Masar, a University of Illinois graduate, will be playing in front of her hometown crowd when she takes the field Sunday.
"Hopefully we'll have one of the top crowds in WPS to date," said Red Stars CEO Peter Wilt when reached by telephone. The best-attended match so far was the inaugural game between Los Angeles and Washington, which drew 14,832 fans. "We've been working behind the scenes for really three years getting ready for this."
Billboards advertising the team have been visible around Chicago, and commercials have aired on the local NBC affiliate over the past few weeks promoting the team and Sunday's game. The team is also one of the best at promoting itself through things like Twitter and other social networking Internet sites. Wilt Tweeted pictures from media day Tuesday, and their head coach Emma Hayes has even sent Tweets shortly before and after each match this season.
"There's just so much time, energy, effort that have gone into making this happen," said midfielder Lindsay Tarpley via phone. "I'm excited and I'm really looking forward to Sunday." Tarpley has scored both Chicago goals this season.
For fans not quite sure what to expect from the Chicago Red Stars and their head coach, Breakers midfielder Kelly Smith, who played for Arsenal in England while Hayes was an assistant coach, shared a scouting report.
"She likes to play a good attacking style of soccer," Smith said. "She'd rather score more goals and not worry about probably letting too many in as long as they score five and the other team scores four."
Chicago's first two games have not played out quite that way, as the Red Stars have been forced into defensive contests, but the team certainly has the personnel to attack. Brazil's Cristiane, who, like Smith, was a runner-up to Marta for FIFA World Player of the Year in 2008, saw her first action of the season last weekend after sitting out the first game because of fitness issues, and should be one of the go-to players up top Saturday.
She's joined in the attack by Masar, Tarpley, U.S. national team midfielder Carli Lloyd and another international who Smith knows well, 21-year-old English striker Karen Carney, who has 6 goals in 41 caps with the national team.
"Kaz Carney is somebody that I rate very highly. I think she's going to be a very good player in this league. She wants to prove herself on the world stage, and she'll certainly get an opportunity to do that," Smith said.
After two solid defensive efforts by the Red Stars, Masar said the team is focusing on offense this week and expecting lots of attacking Sunday.
"Whether it's going to be Megan Rapinoe going on the left or Karen Carney going on the right, you're never going to get a dull moment," she said. "You're going to see 90 minutes of us going at them over and over. It's going to be probably some of the most exciting soccer in the league."
"We believe we're going to create one of the best atmospheres in WPS, and the credit for that will go to the fans themselves," Wilt said. "There won't be cheerleaders or even mascots telling the fans when to cheer, when not to; the fans themselves are going to decide that."
Week in review
The Red Stars head into their home opener following a 1-1 draw with the Washington Freedom at the Maryland Soccerplex. Chicago defender Frida Ostberg became the first player sent off in WPS history, collecting two yellow cards during a nine-minute span in the second half. Forced to play with 10 for the final 27 minutes of the match with the score already tied, Chicago needed goalkeeper Caroline Jonsson to come up big in goal, and she did, making 13 saves, nine in the second half.
"She's a brick wall," Masar said of Jonsson's performance. "Not only with her skills as a goalie, but she's a leader on this team."
The match was played in front of 5,028 fans, a record attendance for the facility.
The Boston Breakers got their first points of the season in a win over St. Louis Athletica thanks to another strong second-half performance by Kelly Smith. She pushed one goal past Athletica goalkeeper Hope Solo and set up Kristine Lilly's goal in the 87th minute to ice the 2-0 win. Smith earned WPS player of the week honors for her efforts in the game.
"[Smith's] a world-class player," St. Louis captain Lori Chalupny said after the match. "One of the top players I've ever played against in my career. It's a short list up there, and she's one of them."
For the second straight week, St. Louis outshot its opponent, this time by the tally of 14-7, but only managed to put two on frame and was once again shut out. The Athletica are the only team to not yet get on the scoreboard this season.
"We're pleased with the way we've been playing, but that only lasts so long -- you need results," Chalupny said. "We just gotta put the ball in the back of the net. I think we're doing everything else well. We're playing well as a team. We're getting our chances. We're just not putting it away."
Despite the cold and rain, a solid crowd of 4,804 turned up in Boston, right in the range the league is hoping to average.
Meanwhile, in New Jersey, another strong performance in goal by Nicole Barnhart (seven saves) helped FC Gold Pride (Bay Area) hold onto a tie versus Sky Blue FC (NJ/NY). FC Gold Pride once again took a first-half lead on a Carrie Dew goal, only to have Sky Blue FC equalize in the second half with a blast from Heather O'Reilly. FC Gold Pride weathered the second-half barrage from their opponent and escaped with a draw when Natasha Kai's last-second shot sailed high.
The game produced the only crowd of the early season to fall below the league's average attendance goal, as 2,753 came to the match on a rainy day on the East Coast. It was the team's second home match of the season, and it won't return to New Jersey until May 31, as Sky Blue FC will now play five consecutive road games.
One of the most frustrating situations for fans in the early season has to be the lack of video highlights on the league and team Web sites. As of now, only highlights from the Fox Soccer Channel game are posted online. The league says it's working on expanding video on the team and league Web sites.
The sooner that happens, the better. For fans, it's frustrating to not be able to see the video when Marta scores two goals in three minutes in New Jersey or Kristine Lilly hits the upper 90 off a sweet back pass from Smith to beat Hope Solo in Boston. Twitter and MatchTracker on the league Web site are great ways to update fans during the games -- and the league is absolutely right to take advantage of those avenues -- but video highlights are needed. There have been some great plays made already in WPS, and just reading about it won't do for many casual fans, and potential fans. WPS needs to make sure that highlights can be seen by as many people who want to see them. There's no chance a great play will go viral and make it onto popular sports Web sites unless video highlights are accessible online.
Despite the England-Norway friendly April 23, English national-teamers Kelly Smith and Alex Scott aren't planning on missing any matches for Boston. The two will head to England on Sunday after the Breakers play the Freedom on Saturday night and meet up with their teammates in Chicago for the game against the Red Stars on April 25.
Los Angeles' Marta, Boston's Smith and Chicago's Tarpley are tied for the league lead in goals with two. Both Marta and Smith have also tallied an assist.
1. Los Angeles Sol (2-0-0): No change at the top, as Marta and company enjoy a bye week. They'll host FC Gold Pride on Sunday. Los Angeles is the only team not to have given up a goal.
2. Chicago Red Stars (1-0-1): Two games on the road and four points to show for it is a pretty good start heading into the home opener.
3. Boston Breakers (1-1-0): Defense and goalkeeping were solid. Smith has factored in all three Breakers goals this season.
4. FC Gold Pride (Bay Area) (1-0-1): Escaped with a tie against Sky Blue FC. Nicole Barnhart is solid in goal.
5. Sky Blue FC (NJ/NY) (0-1-1): Dominated the game, but could only force a tie.
6. Washington Freedom (0-1-1): Had chances, but couldn't take advantage of playing 11 vs. 10 for most of the second half at home against Chicago.
7. St. Louis Athletica (0-2-0): The only team in WPS to have not scored a goal, despite outshooting their opponents in the first two games.
Jacqueline Purdy covers women's soccer for ESPN.com. She also is an editor for ESPNRadio.com. She can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, followed on Twitter and friended on ESPN's fan profiles.