The National Women’s Soccer League features some of the biggest stars in the world. With the Summer Olympics kicking off in July, many of those stars will be absent for a significant portion of the season. Additionally, the start of the league’s Challenge Cup competition will fall in an international FIFA window, meaning the national team players will be called up instead of being with their club teams to start the tournament. Fortunately, the league’s impressive depth will be showcased while the internationals are away. This series will highlight five players from each NWSL team who can take advantage of the opportunity to make a name for themselves this season.
It was hardly surprising to see Chicago make a run to the final in the inaugural Challenge Cup last season. After falling to Houston in the final, the Red Stars are eager to get their revenge. And they'll get their chance early, since their opener is Chicago is set for a rematch with the Dash.
The lineups are expected to look a bit different from that Challenge Cup final but the Red Stars believe that can play in their favor as the club has built plenty of depth, specifically in the empty spots left by international selections.
Chicago has brought in a couple of new faces who are expected to move straight into starting roles and should be key to the team’s success this summer. Sky Blue fans may want to look away as Mallory Pugh and Sarah Woldmoe lead that group of new faces and are set to partner together in key roles with their new club.
There are still a couple of nagging injuries Red Stars fans may be worried about but once again, many of those concerns get washed away when you look down the roster at the new depth available. That depth is what headlines our five players to watch this season in Chicago.
The name recognition is certainly still there for Pugh and Chicago fans have been rightfully excited for her debut with the Red Stars since she was acquired in December.
However, Pugh will feel the need to prove herself and she has seemingly fallen out of favor for selection with the national team, whether due to health, fit or form. Plus, the Red Stars paid a hefty fee to get Pugh to Chicago, her third NWSL city in as many years. After starting her career with a six-goal, one-assist campaign as an 18-year-old rookie, Pugh has yet to reach that efficiency in a single season since. But she may not need to be an out-and-out goal scorer for the Red Stars and could take on a more facilitating role from the wing in Rory Dames’s 4-2-3-1 formation, especially with the loss of attacking midfielder Savannah McCaskill.
Pugh could still find her name on the roster for the Olympics, as Vlatko Andonovski suggested she was only left out of camp due to an injury, but if she sticks with Chicago for the Challenge Cup and the regular season she should see plenty of minutes to get her young career back on track.
Someone who should take off some of that goal-scoring pressure for Pugh is Watt, who will likely serve more as an actual striker.
Watt did not have the best start to her Chicago career, failing to score during last year’s Challenge Cup and only forcing a couple of saves in 511 minutes of action. She bounced back during the Fall Series with a brace in a win against Sky Blue and two assists in four games, and now Watt hopes some of that momentum will carry over as she is set to lead the front line for the Red Stars.
It was not just the goals that showed Watt’s improvement during the Fall Series though. She was more active on the ball and spent most of her time at the top of the formation. Watt drew seven fouls in four Fall Series games, as opposed to the zero free kicks earned during the Challenge Cup. If another step forward happens for Watt this season, she could be not just the best forward on Chicago, but one of the best in the league once again.
Woldmoe may not have the international reputation that Pugh has so she went a bit under the radar in the December trade, but Woldmoe is about as consistent as they come in the midfield. And she could end up filling the most important role on the field for the Red Stars.
Julie Ertz is expected to miss a lot of games due to international camps and competition this year so there will be a hole in that defensive midfield spot for Chicago. We saw how much the Red Stars struggled defensively without Ertz during the Fall Series. The club saw the same thing, so it went out to get a player it believes can fill that role better in Ertz’s absence. The addition of Woldmoe may also serve as an opportunity for Morgan Gautrat to take on a more free role in the midfield.
Woldmoe served as team captain for Sky Blue and played all 90 minutes of every game last year. She will serve as a more defensive presence in the midfield for Chicago, one who will often stay back during an attack and find forward passes from the halfway line. Woldmoe completed 84.2% of her passes during the Fall Series, including 66.7% of long pass attempts. Her passing is capable of holding possession when the team needs to be more disciplined but also good enough going forward, creating 14 key passes in 10 games last year.
There is just one concern when it comes to depth on Chicago’s roster but it comes in a pretty big spot. The Challenge Cup hasn’t even gotten started and we are already in “Emergency Goalkeeper Watch” for the Red Stars.
Alyssa Naeher will be the national team and backup Emily Boyd suffered an injury while on loan in Europe, which leaves Miller and non-roster invitee Melissa Lowder as the lone goalies for preseason camp. Miller is expected to claim the starting role at least for the Challenge Cup and Chicago’s success is going to rely heavily on the young keeper. Miller helped keep a clean sheet against Portland during last year’s prelim round, making one save in 45 minutes of action off the bench. She also played in the Netherlands with PSV during the 2018-19 season, keeping two clean sheets in five starts.
There are a lot of open positions in the defense right now and Miller may not still be the starting goalie come May, but she will have the opportunity to make a name for herself through the Challenge Cup if Chicago wants to make another deep run.
Speaking of open positions in the defense, there will be plenty of minutes up for grabs on the back line with so many starters expected to be out for the start of the tournament.
Tierna Davidson will be with the national team while Casey Krueger and Bianca St. Georges have recently suffered injuries and do not have a definitive timeline for a return to the field. All three of those players could be gone again once the Olympics arrive. Sarah Gorden will be the only available defensive starter from the Fall Series finale but even Gorden isn’t a full-time center back. So those center spots will have to be filled and that’s where Sharples comes in.
In 167 minutes of play during last year’s Challenge Cup, Sharples had a 100% success rate on tackles and a 67% success rate on aerial duals. As with many young defenders, she will want to become more reliable with the ball at her feet but her size advantage and above-average speed for a defender has allowed her to recover well from any mistakes on the back end. Sharples is also a scoring threat on set pieces, proving that during her recent loan to Finland club Kuopion Palloseura. She scored her first professional goal on a header off a corner kick in the second minute of a 4-1 victory.