This is the second match of the 4th round which will decide the seedings for the quarter finals. Nobody wants to be in 8th place and face North Carolina in the quarters although whoever you face, only one team from each match goes through to the semis. We're about to hit the do or die part of the tournament.
At the start of the round, Utah are in 4th place after a win, a draw and a loss and Chicago are in the dreaded 8th position after one draw and two losses. Not what anyone would have expected from last year's finalist.
On a brighter note, this round is being deemed the Pride round and while we are no longer in Pride Month, which is June, there are a number of events arranged to celebrate Pride. OL Reign seem to be the only team wearing Pride numbers on their jerseys. Sarah Gorden has started a series of pledges to LGBTIQ charities that players are making, based on events that may or may not occur during the matches. For example, Kealia Watt is donating $100 every time Rory Dames, the Red Stars coach, yells at her. She's capped it at $2500 so she must be expecting a right bollocking. Not sure who is keeping track of all these but the statisticians will have their work cut out for them.
A final point to note is that the Chicago players warm up jerseys are emblazoned with the names of women killed by police and where no charges have been laid as yet, in tribute to the BLM movement.
Starting line up are as follows:
1 Alyssa Naeher
11 Sarah Gorden
8 Julie Ertz
26 Tierna Davidson
6 Casey Short
24 Danielle Colaprico
13 Morgan Gautrat
10 Vanessa Dibernado
9 Savannah McCaskill
5 Rachel Hill
2 Kealia Watt
1 Abby Smith
2 Rachel Corsie
6 Katie Bowen
12 Taylor Lytle
17 Arielle Ship
20 Mallory Webber
22 Madeline Nolf
24 Taylor Leach
25 Brittany Ratcliffe
38 Aminata Diallo
66 Gunny Jonsdottir
Chicago is looking much stronger on paper with their five national team players all starting, taking some pressure off Ertz to carry the team. Utah seem to be either resting their key players or maybe don't mind losing. There's quite a few key players missing from their starting line up.
We kick off and early on Chicago are looking a bit stronger. Watt has a run down the right side towards the box but Smith comes out of the goal to grab it safely. Soon after, Gorden passes to McCaskill then to Watt who gets it to Dibernado in the box. She takes a shot but it defects off Corsie into the arms of Smith for the first on-target strike of the match. Chicago only has one goal for the whole tournament so far.
First corner for Utah is taken by Lytle . Everyone is at the back of the box but it's played short and then kicked out on the other side of the field. Diallo is on for her first game after coming from France and spending time in quarantine, delaying her start.
Lytle puts a nice ball through in front of goal that is cleared for a corner. Lytle takes the corner and it's cleared out to Nolf who takes a long shot from outside the box but it skims over the top cross bar. It was a solid shot though. Taylor Leach goes down in a tackle and it looks like it might be a hamstring problem. She goes off and Elizabeth Ball comes on to replace her. Soon after, Jonsdottir gets a hit to the ankles and gets a free kick for her pain.
Ship takes a run down the centre and passes to Radcliffe who sends it back to Ship. She shoots towards goal but Naeher dives to send it wide for the third Utah corner. The corner lobs in but it's sent wide just before the hydration break.
Davidson is taken off after half an hour. She took a knock immediately before but didn't seem too bad so it seems they are being cautious with her. Shame as she was playing well and it seems like a long time since we've seen her play. Goralski comes on to replace her. For the first time in the tournament, there's been first half substitutions. Gorden moves to centre back and Goralski goes to right back.
Utah are back in possession and a nice ball comes through in front of goal by Webber to Radcliffe but she can't connect and it goes out.
Dibernado takes a free kick that goes straight into the waiting arms of Smith. There's three minutes of extra time.
A long ball comes over the top to Gautret who controls it but Smith comes out off her line to clear it and takes Gautret down in the process. Looks like she was hit in the shin and is in a bit of pain. Might have also twisted her elbow. She limps off just before half time looking a bit shaky.
In the dying seconds of the first half, McCaskill takes a run down the centre followed by half the Utah team but the whistle goes and we're still at nil all at half time.
Utah is holding up better than expected and making a few runs. Chicago still has the problem that they can't finish although they've looked threatening a couple of times.
There's a few substitutions at half time. Vero on and Radcliffe off, Johnson on and Gautrat off.
Utah with early possession at the start of the second half and we're in the box for a cross by Ship and Bowen takes a weak shot straight to Naeher. Goralski earns Chicago their first corner. Dibernado to take it and she lobs it right in front of goal. Smith goes up and grabs it but clashes with Short and drops the ball which goes into goal and bounces off Diallo and back into Smith's hands. A foul is called on Short for interference as it was in Smith's hands initially so it's no goal.
Back down the other end and Vero is on the end of a cross but Naeher grabs it and sends it straight back down to Hill who passes to Watt who gets a decent shot in but it's wide of goal.
There's a free kick past half way and Smith comes up to take it. It's a long way back to goal from there if Chicago gets possession but Smith's kick is to the far corner and she gets back to goal safely.
Nolf is off and La Bonta is on. La Bonta brings her physicality to the game and takes out McCaskill with a hit to the head either via her elbow or maybe her chin. McCaskill ends up with a bump to her forehead the size off a golf ball. After a few tests, she goes off but comes straight back on.
There's a long diagonal ball to Watt in the corner who sends it right across the face of the goal but there's no one there. Smith gets a hand to it which means a Chicago corner but it comes to nothing.
Down the right flank to Goralski, eventually to Short who shoots but once again, it goes straight to Smith. Chicago is starting to apply some pressure now. Johnson gets the ball and brings it towards the box but gets pushed in the back for a free kick outside the box. McCaskill takes it and lobs it into the box but Short can't get to it and it goes back outside the box and back to McCaskill who lobs it once more, this time straight to the safe hands of Smith.
Some more substitutions for Utah and King is on, Lytle off and O'Hara on, Bowen off. King gets involved straight away and crosses via Vero to Diallo who lines it up but sends it over the cross bar. Then Vero to Webber who kicks it straight to Naeher. Feels like the tempo has changed for Utah now. La Bonta seems to knock over everyone she tackles and is going in hard.
For Chicago, Watt is off and Vasconcelos on. McCaskill sends another lob into the box for Short who has been playing high the whole match. This time the header connects perfectly and sails by Smith for the first goal of the match. Short is ecstatic as her teammates come to congratulate her.
Utah are straight back on the attack. Vero to O'Hara who takes a shot which is blocked at close range by Short. McCaskill is down again in the middle of the field. Seems to have taken a hit to the ankle. She gets back up with no attention by the trainers but her effort has finally taken its toll and she's substituted with Doniak. She's going to need a lot of ice.
Smith takes another free kick on the other side of half way. It goes to O'Hara but she sends it out for a goal kick.
As per usual, there's six minutes of extra time. Not sure why it's always six minutes but it always is. There's a shot of McCaskill on the bench with a big bag of ice on the lump on her forehead. LOL. Image of the match.
Diallo sends a ball into the box but Webber can't turn on it and it goes out. For Chicago, Hill gives it to Doniak but an ineffective shot goes to the left of goal. Short earns a corner for the Red Stars and they take it short and keep it in the corner to run the clock down.
In a last ditch effort to equalise, King gets it to O'Hara who crosses but can't get a shot away in the box. The final whistle goes and Chicago win their first game, not entirely convincingly. It was a pretty even game really with both teams getting similar possession, Chicago marginally in front. Chicago got a few more crosses in and passing accuracy was slightly better and they won more tackles but there wasn't much in it. Despite a strong line up today, this isn't the Chicago of last year. Ertz wasn't the dominating player of the last few matches and Short and McCaskill probably shined the most. Short was player of the match for me and both keepers earnt their money today.
The win sends Chicago up the rankings table to 6th position and means they can't be last and face the Courage. The Portland v OL Reign game will make that decision with the loser guaranteed to meet North Carolina. Even a draw will leave Portland at the bottom of the table so big stakes in that match. Whatever the result, Chicago will end in seventh place and will play either Washington Spirit, OL Reign or Sky Blue. It's a bit more difficult to predict who Utah might play as there's a bunch of teams on 4 points so goal differences and maybe yellow cards will come into effect to decide placings. Utah should finish in sixth spot and will play whoever ends up in third spot.
On the form today, it's difficult to see either of these teams making the semis. Anything is possible of course but neither team was particularly convincing or decisive. Neither seem to be gelling well as a team. It's been a weird tournament with unexpected results. I don't think anyone would have predicted Chicago and Portland to be on the bottom of the table at this stage.
Finally, the Twitch platform has been great for international viewers with an average of 10,000 viewers per match and quite a good interactive comment experience. Having moderators with a sense of humour has been a blessing too. After the debacle at the end of last year with ESPN, Twitch had been a godsend for the international viewers, with a distinctly English tone for the morning games and Spanish tone for the evening games.
By Kris Goman
Photo Credit: Nikki Flores @ Footy Day Photos