Opponents seeing stars: Chicago Red Stars season preview

Chicago are banking on a few aging veterans to find another season of greatness and a few injured players to recover in time for the playoffs. Will it all come together?

The Chicago Red Stars have had the unfortunate spell of being caught in the spotlight so early in the development of the NWSL, thanks to the injury that has sidelined defender Amy LePeilbet for six to eight months. The team also made history by being the first NWSL club to trade a player. Keelin Winters transferred to Seattle in exchange for a first round pick in the 2014 draft.

Chicago should employ a 4-4-2 formation, with midfielders capable of getting up and down the pitch to contribute in all phases. This formation also proved effective for the team as they won four of their pre-season matches, with their attacking prowess looking like the strongest part of their side.

The Goalkeepers

The last line of defense for the Red Stars appears virtually impenetrable. Erin McLeod and Taylor Vancil are the talented goalkeepers tasked with keeping clean sheets for Chicago. McLeod, the assumed starter, already has two W-League championships under her belt. Fans that are new to the world of women’s soccer would have been introduced to McLeod during the epic Olympics semifinal clash between Canada and the United States, where she stopped countless U.S. attacks. McLeod will be up for any challenge, but she might face her toughest test when the Stars are facing the Western New York Flash or Portland Thorns, as both have strong forwards (Abby Wambach and Christine Sinclair) and aggressive midfielders (Carli Lloyd and Allie Long).

Vancil may not have been a permanent fixture for the Florida State Seminoles in 2011 and 2012 but in only seven appearances for FSU in 2011, she recorded two shutouts. Hopefully Vancil will gain the experience she needs to compete at this level from working with professional coaches and behind McLeod. She has the potential to be a great keeper but she needs the experience on a professional level to improve on her skills.

The Defenders

The most powerful defender on the field for the Red Stars is Carmelina Moscato. She is one of few defenders that can command the entire pitch while working in a fluid system. Her prowess on the field allows her to push forward and create scoring opportunities for her teammates. She is the ideal center back in an up-tempo side, as she can work at a high pace for a full 90 minutes. It is likely that Moscato will command the back line, and in doing so create a strong partnership with Chicago's talented, but not entirely proven midfield. An added benefit of recruiting Moscato is that she is paired in the back with McLeod, a player she has built a rapport with in the Canadian national team. This should help communication at the back.

She led the Red Stars in goals last season in WPSL, but her best chance to start is in defense, and she could end up as an all-position super-sub.

Joining Moscato in the back is Lauren Fowlkes as she suits up in a Red Stars jersey again. Fowlkes is a versatile player who has experience playing in every position on the field except goalkeeper. She led the Red Stars in goals last season in WPSL, but her best chance to start is in defense, and she could end up as an all-position super-sub. Fowlkes is 5’10" and her size gives her an advantage in the air no matter where she plays. For the Red Stars, Fowlkes should be a key element to set up plays from the back line, and assist McLeod in keeping a clean score sheet if she does start in defense

The acquisition of Taryn Hemmings as a defender is perplexing. She is a talented athlete, but she hasn't played in defense during her career. Previously, she played as a defensive midfielder for the Breakers during their 2010-11 season and as a forward for Canberra United. The question remains why she is being used as a defender when her strength lies in moving up front and scoring goals. Her time with Canberra United helped them win the W-League Premiership, where she scored four goals in 10 appearances. Hemmings might be better suited as a central midfielder than as a defender, but her long-term position remains to be seen.

Not to stereotype Stanford athletes, but one cannot deny that the Cardinals produce top players in women’s soccer. They've consistently produced some of the fittest and most talented players in women's soccer, recently churning out Kelley O’Hara, Ali Riley and Christen Press. Rachel Quon joins them in the professional ranks, and should make a great attacking right back for the Red Stars. If given space to move forward, Quon can score goals; she ended UCLA's winning streak with a goal in college last season. Quon is an opportunistic player and reads developing attacks well. She already has experience playing against fellow teammate Zakiya Bywaters, who is known for her speed on the field. Therefore, I have high hopes for this Cardinal that she will do a superb job with the back four.

Jackie Santacaterina has played for the Red Stars since 2010, and is a safe option for the Stars as they know her playing style, and remain confident about her playing in the back line instead of midfield. Santacaterina is persistent on the field and is great in head to head combat which tends to result in her winning the ball. Her strengths do not lie in scoring goals, as they do in retaining and winning the ball. She is a useful player to have on the field for when pressure is being placed in the Stars half, and she's likely to rack up a few assists as well. She has a chance to start, but isn't a lock for the starting XI.

Michelle Wenino is a talented tall defender, standing at 5’8". In a sport with teams that have tall forwards, a tall defender is essential to deploy. Wenino could play as a left back, even though she's right-footed; if Wenino can ascertain substantial training, she could perfect her attacking capabilities on the left side.

The Stars announced Lydia Vandenbergh signing to the club as a discovery player and could be setup as a right central defender next to Moscato. She also has a midfielder's mindset and should help with starting attacks out of the back.

The Midfielders

The Red Stars' 4-4-2 formation is going to put pressure on their midfielders to do a lot of work, and their midfielders are standout players who are suited to the job. Chicago has bulked their roster with talented midfield players whou should be able to contain the action in the midfield to prevent play moving into their half.

If Tyra Banks were a soccer coach she would call Leslie Osborne ‘fierce’. Osborne is commanding as she pushes the ball up the field, in essence the perfect attacking midfielder or left midfielder. She may be a starting player because of her professional background, and unhindered playing ability on the field. In order to operate in this position she will have to communicate effortlessly with the front line.

Lori Chalupny is a soccer prodigy and has captained both her national team and professional clubs in the past. There's a chance that she could be taken a bit out of her comfort zone and played centrally, but she's more likely (and better suited) to play on the right.

The central midfield positions will be demanding for the Red Stars, and Alyssa Mautz is definitely one of the players to take on the task. She played as a forward for the U.S. under-23 team, but has been listed as a midfielder for the preseason roster, in line with her collegiate position with Texas A&M. Her ability to play midfield or striker makes her an extremely useful asset. If she plays in midfield, expect her to push up and support the forwards frequently.

For a decade, Shannon Boxx has graced the field as a member of the USWNT. Due to her advancing age, she might spend a bit more time this season as a game-changing second half substitute than as a 90-minute starter in every match. Having said that, whether she's an every-game starter or an occasional bench player, expect her to participate in every game she's healthy for.

Julianne Sitch is a favorite of Rory Dames, who has coached her before. She has gathered playing experience outside of the United States, in both Australia and Sweden. Trained as a defender for much of her playing career, Sitch is to re-join the Red Stars as a midfielder. She may be utilized as defensive midfielder, alongside Boxx or Mautz.

Considerable media speculation has been drawn as to whether Lindsay Tarpley will play in the NWSL, as she has not played competitively since her injury in 2011. Thankfully we now know that Tarpley will in fact suit up for Chicago in the upcoming months after she completes rehabilitation for her knee. If she comes back healthy, expect her to demonstrate why she was once a USWNT favorite. She may even reignite the USWNT's interest in her if she completes a successful run with Chicago.

The Forwards

There are four standout players to enact the many attacking options available in this formation, and it's likely that all of them will get some chance to play throughout the season.

Zakiya Bywaters could start as a second striker, situated between the midfield and a bigger forward. For the sake of her potential USWNT future, Bywaters would probably be best served by moving into the midfield, but her goal-scoring record at under-20 level is impeccable and the Red Stars are loaded in that area. Bywaters, who is fast and controls the ball well, had a great career for UCLA before becoming the Red Stars' No. 1 pick in the draft. She's versatile, and might set up more goals than she scores.

Ella Masar as a starting striker would enrich the Red Stars' goal scoring potential. She's one of many team that returns from their WPSL campaign, and it appears that they're content with the performances of these players in the past. In Masar’s case, she struggled with Chicago in WPS, but proceeded to improve later in her career with magicJack and PSG before she returned to Chicago.

Also re-joining Chicago will be Jessica McDonald. She's a big target forward at nearly 6'0" and recently scored seven goals in 13 appearances during her stint with the Melbourne Victory. She will be in the mix for a starting center forward spot, and her size makes her difficult for anyone to mark.

One standout player that Chicago plucked from the tryouts is Hanna Gilmore, who is fresh off a successful season at Baylor. If she impresses during training, then Chicago will definitely give her a chance to play. She can play as a forward, but also on the right side of midfield or as an attacking midfielder.

Maribel Dominguez may be a top goal scorer for Mexico, but her age and lack of competitive play in recent years might keep her from being first choice.

Maribel Dominguez may be a top goal scorer for Mexico, but her age and lack of competitive play in recent years might keep her from being first choice. She's not the only (extremely) veteran forward joining the team; German international Inka Grings will be joining the Chicago team in May. Both of these players are the top goal scorers for their national teams, but their ages might prohibit them from playing a full 90 minutes on a consistent basis.

Although the Red Stars maintain an adequate defense, until LePeilbet recovers, they'll have a void in their back line that they'll need to fill in using a player currently on the roster. Analyzing the Red Stars current 2013 roster, it is evident that their strength lies in their midfield and strikers.

The team demonstrated that they can work as a cohesive group during their pre-season as they have fluid communication on the pitch. Young prospects such as Quon and Gilmore will shine and hopefully create some national team buzz, while Mautz, Masar and Moscato will prove to be a challenge for their opponents. The Red Stars have a bright future ahead of them in the inaugural NWSL season with the potential to round out the top five.

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