College To Pros With the NWSL’s Chicago Red Stars
The 2017 National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) season kicked off last week with nationwide coverage provided by Lifetime highlighting a new era for the growth of women’s soccer.
GoalNation spoke with members of the Chicago Red Stars as we present the latest editorial highlighting our professional women’s soccer clubs in the United States.
NWSL Soccer News: The second week of the 2017 National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) season is approaching as the Chicago Red Stars take the pitch for their first home match. Chicago is in the hunt for another run at an NWSL title after advancing to the semifinals during the past two seasons.
As the 2017 campaign welcomes new faces across the league, Chicago returns many familiar players that have walked the hallways of the club in recent years. The Red Stars boast a squad that combines youth with experience, which has remained a constant threat for their opponents.
However, developing a top-tier organization does not start with bringing in players that compete for the first team. Influencing an environment and establishing a pathway for younger players to develop is met with comprehensive growth and success.
President/Owner Arnim Whisler and head coach Rory Dames are dedicated to developing a soccer organization that services players at all levels as they strive to reach their best.
“The whole funnel from top to bottom makes a lot of sense,” says Dames.
Chicago also fields a team that competes in the Women’s Premier Soccer League (WPSL), which is the second-tier women’s league in the United States.
This provides the club with the ability to pull players up to train with the first team throughout the season. Dames and his coaching personnel are able keep these players on the radar while they remain on the pitch with the WPSL squad.
“We have players come in over the summer, and we put them into our system,” says Dames. “We evaluate them in a training environment and in games.”
In addition to his role as head coach, Dames serves as Director of Coaching for Chicago Eclipse Select – a local youth soccer club. He describes his 21-year experience at the club as providing him with incite into the player market.
“Being familiar with players in the draft and knowing what their strengths and weaknesses are is definitely a huge asset for myself,” says Dames.
Several players that suit up for the Red Stars caught Dames’ attention at the club level, which he highlights as beneficial for assembling the pieces that best fit his squad.
“I was familiar with a lot of players currently on the team at the youth level, whether coaching against or watching them,” says Dames.
Dames has used his experience at the youth level to establish a professional organization that drives players to reach their potential.
Transitioning from college to the professional ranks calls on many expectations. A player will experience setbacks along the way, but the ultimate factor is how he or she responds throughout the process.
Dames cites the importance of players finding their comfort with the squad during this transition in order to maintain focus on improving their game.
“The advice I give everybody when they come in on day one – especially the young ones – is the quicker you can settle in and be yourself, the better you’re going to do,” says Dames.
As a player gets settled with a new club, working to maintain mental focus will help to curb any mental setbacks that may impede progress. Team chemistry will develop during this process and energize the playing environment in the locker room and on the field.
“The more comfortable the environment with your teammates is, the better you’re going to perform,” says Dames.
Originally drafted by Chicago in 2015, Arin Gilliland recognizes Chicago’s belief in younger players and the aspirations to develop individuals of its own.
“The club puts a lot of pride in building talent rather than bringing in players that are already developed,” says Gilliland.
During her development with the club, Gilliland recalls her experience as one of the toughest encounters during her soccer career due to the goals set by herself and the club.
“It has totally pushed me above and beyond anything I have done,” says Gilliland. “The physical expectations Rory asks of his outside players really pushed me mentally and physically. It’s really pushed me to the extent I can reach — to my full capacity.”
Throughout the growth of Chicago’s rising stars, veteran and U.S. Women’s National Team players have played a major role in increasing the level of intensity and focus of their teammates.
“These players are key,” says Dames. “They compete in an environment that is one of the hardest. To bring that mentality to our practices, training and games, and for them to step up is phenomenal.”
USWNT forward Christen Press has embraced the role as a leader during this process as she sets an example for her younger teammates.
“Christen had never been asked to take a leadership role,” says Dames. “She far exceeded my expectations of how she grew into that.”
Dames also highlights USWNT goalkeeper Alyssa Naehar as providing her teammates with energy that has raised the competitive environment at the club.
“Alyssa has such a calming presence,” says Dames. “Besides the fact of how talented she is as a goalkeeper, she raises the level of everybody around her.”
With a FIFA Women’s World Cup title in her trophy case, defender Julie Johnston enters her fourth season in the NWSL at the age of just 25 years old. During her career with Chicago, Johnston earned 2014 Rookie of the Year honors and was named to the Best XI during the 2015 campaign.
“She’s been the backbone and driving force since she came in here on day one,” says Dames. “She’s the motivational leader on the field and she’s the one that brings the physical presence for us.”
Forward Sofia Huerta is coming off a stellar 2016 season that saw her record seven goals and two assists. Originally drafted by Chicago in 2015, Huerta and her teammates have leaned on their veterans during their development.
“Every national team player is extremely focused,” says Huerta. “They bring a different level of competition and have a huge impact on our younger players — especially on my career when I started out.”
As Chicago returns a majority of the squad from last season, the chemistry remains at an all-time high heading into 2017. In addition to Gilliland and Huerta, Chicago returns an array of talented players that are reaching the height of their professional careers.
“I think the strength in our squad is the continuity that we brought back from last year,” says Dames.
Midfielder Danielle Colaprico was also a member of the 2015 Red Stars draft class, while midfielder Vanessa DiBernardo was drafted by the club in 2014.
Colaprico started every match for the Red Stars in 2016, recording one goal and two assists during the regular season. DiBernardo tallied seven assists last campaign, which was tied for second in the league.
Chicago also returns forward Stephanie McCaffrey who joined the Red Stars during the summer transfer window in 2016. She recorded two goals in six matches. McCaffrey was drafted by Chicago during the 2015 NWSL Draft, but was traded to the Boston Breakers during the second round.
Dames remains excited for the fifth NWSL season, which is highlighted by the league’s broadcast partnership with Lifetime. National coverage serves as another step forward for developing the women’s game into a premier industry as all supporters embrace the sport.
“It’s a huge deal to make it to season five, and now we’ve brought in a major sponsorship,” says Dames. “The league continues to grow. Players continue to get better. The standards have been raised. It’s a win for everybody!”
The Chicago Red Stars host FC Kansas City on Saturday, April 22nd at Toyota Park. The Week 2 matchup will kick off at 4:00 p.m. ET.