The last time the Red Stars played in the National Women’s Soccer League championship game, the team looked significantly different.
Julie Ertz anchored the backline, Alyssa Naeher was in goal and Sam Kerr led the attack. Kerr became the NWSL’s first two-time most valuable player after scoring 18 goals in 21 games during the 2019 regular season.
The Red Stars had high expectations heading into the title match against the North Carolina Courage but lost 4-0 in shocking fashion, given their talent.
Two seasons later, the Red Stars again are playing for their first NWSL title — to the surprise of many.
‘‘In past years, the mentality has been, ‘This is the group of players that plays, then there are players that maybe see the field a bit,’ ’’ midfielder Danny Colaprico said. ‘‘All year this year, we’ve had multiple players step on the field and show up.’’
The fourth-seeded Red Stars’ road victory Sunday against the top-seeded Portland Thorns in the semifinals was a prime example.
Kealia Watt went down with an injury in the 29th minute. She was replaced by Katie Johnson, who scored in the 39th minute off an assist from Vanessa DiBernardo.
Coach Rory Dames didn’t address Watt’s injury in his postgame interview, other than to say she would be evaluated back in Chicago. It’s unclear whether she will be available for the title game Saturday against the third-seeded Washington Spirit in Louisville, Kentucky.
Injuries are nothing new for the Red Stars this season. They lost Ertz in the first game and Naeher to a knee injury suffered during the Olympics.
‘‘We have a deep squad,’’ goalkeeper Cassie Miller said. ‘‘No matter what has come our way this year, whether it’s national-team players gone or injuries, the next player has taken it full force.’’
Miller played behind Naeher in the first half of the season before taking over when Naeher left for Tokyo. After Naeher went down in the Olympic semifinals against Canada, Miller’s role went from temporary replacement to indefinite starter.
Through the second half of the season, however, Naeher has been a leading voice for her teammates, who always have commended her for setting the tone of training.
Miller said Naeher took some personal time to spend with family after the Olympics, but her leadership didn’t change when she returned. Naeher traveled with the Red Stars to Portland, Oregon, and was in the locker room with Watt after she left the game with an injury.
‘‘Whether she’s on the field or off, she brings another level of confidence to our team,’’ Miller said of Naeher.
Naeher will be with the Red Stars on Saturday in Louisville. The team hasn’t said whether Ertz will be there, too.
Considering the Red Stars trip to the NWSL Challenge Cup final where they lost to the Houston Dash 2-0, the Red Stars have been to three finals in as many years.
The Red Stars were 2-0-1 against the Spirit during the regular season, but both teams finished strong. The Red Stars were 4-1-1 in their last six games, and the Spirit were 5-0-1.
‘‘Honestly, I like winning this way,’’ Colaprico said. ‘‘Because people don’t expect you to. All year, we’ve been written off. But everyone puts their heads down and shows up.’’