What does NWSL expansion mean for Red Stars?

The Red Stars have one of the most experienced groups in the league in terms of players who have played together. Dames was vocal about the value of keeping that core unit intact last year.

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Red Stars vs. Courage

Chicago Red Stars players celebrate after scoring a goal against North Carolina Courage during the first half of a NWSL soccer match, Saturday, June 5, 2021, in Bridgeview.

Shafkat Anowar/AP

Ahead of the NWSL Expansion Draft in 2020, Red Stars coach Rory Dames said he plans for expansion years in advance.

As the league prepares to expand again next year with the addition of Angel City FC and a team in San Diego, owned by investor Ron Burkle, it’s safe to assume Dames hasn’t stopped planning.

Both Angel City FC and San Diego will begin play in the spring of 2022, which means an expansion draft will be held sometime following the 2021 season.

What does that mean for the Red Stars?

For one, it makes winning now with this roster even more critical.

Coming off a 1-0 victory against the North Carolina Courage that highlighted their defensive prowess, the Red Stars appear to be finding a rhythm at the right time. It was the first time the teams met in the regular season since the 2019 NWSL Championship match. Both team’s rosters bore little resemblance to the rosters they had in 2019.

The Red Stars have another week in the international break before returning to the pitch for a game against the Washington Spirit on June 19 at SeatGeek Stadium. They are currently tied with Gotham FC and the Houston Dash with seven points in the league standings.

“Our emphasis has been on us,” Danny Colaprico said.

Dames was able to secure roster protection ahead of the 2020 expansion draft by trading forward Savannah McCaskill, midfielder Yuki Nagasato, draft assets and two international slots. Neither Dames nor Red Stars’ primary owner Arnim Whisler was aware roster protection was a possibility. Upon presenting the idea to the league, it was established that this tactic could be used.

The Red Stars have one of the most experienced groups in the league with a lot of continuity. Dames was vocal about the value of keeping that core unit intact last year.

Assuming other teams use the same strategy, getting roster protection again will be a challenge. 

Los Angeles and San Diego are both desirable markets, and Dames has said in the past he doesn’t want to keep players in Chicago who have an interest in playing elsewhere. Michelle Vasconcelos’ trade to the Utah Royals in September to be closer to her family in Utah was a prime example of that.

Ownership of the Royals was transferred to a group in Kansas City two months later, and the Kansas City women’s soccer club was formed.

When Angel City FC and San Diego join in 2022, it will bring the league to 12 teams. Former U.S. Women’s National Team coach Jill Ellis will be the president of the San Diego expansion team.

Ellis spoke about the challenges of building a team from scratch, but in a league like the NWSL, it doesn’t have to be a long process to find success. Because of the parity, she believes they could establish a winning organization right away.

Ellis also was candid about her desire to hire a woman as the coach. Freya Coombe, coach of Gotham FC, is the only woman who is a head coach in the NWSL. Ellis said she plans to have a coach hired by July.

“I’m committed to hiring a female,” Ellis said. “Early in this process, I was talking to someone and said, ‘I want to hire a woman.’ And they said to me, ‘Well, there’s not too many good ones out there.’ I said, ‘Yes, there are.’ ”

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