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With four key players leaving for Olympics, remaining Red Stars face challenges

Alyssa Naeher, Tierna Davidson, Julie Ertz and Casey Krueger compete for a gold medal 

Kayla Sharples will be an anchor on the Red Stars backline in the absence of Tierna Davidson and Casey Krueger who are competing in the Tokyo Olympics.
ISI photos

In the ninth week of the NWSL regular season, the Red Stars are in seventh place with a 3-4-2 record.

With their depth and talent, that’s not close to where they expected to be entering the season.

“We’re still a work in progress,” Red Stars coach Rory Dames said ahead of the team’s 1-0 win over the Washington Spirit last week. “I don’t think we’ve made that a secret to anybody.”

The Red Stars’ inconsistency has them fighting their way out of the bottom half of the league standings while Alyssa Naeher, Tierna Davidson, Julie Ertz and Casey Krueger compete for a gold medal in the Tokyo Olympics.

Even before the four Olympians departed for five to six weeks, the Red Stars struggled to finish chances and conceded the most goals in the league with 13.

Ertz has been out for the last eight weeks after suffering a sprained medial collateral ligament in her right knee in the season opener against the Portland Thorns. Dames said he has been impressed by his team’s response to her absence.

Naeher and Davidson reported for USWNT camp last week ahead of two international friendlies against Mexico. Krueger joined the team after the Red Stars’ win over the Spirit.

Davidson and Naeher said rejoining the national team is a chance to reset and refocus on the task at hand, which is winning gold. The time without their Olympic athletes will be defining for the Red Stars.

“It’s a huge challenge for us, but we’re ready,” Cassie Miller said.

Dames said his players don’t need to work harder, they need to work smarter. Against the Spirit, that led to what they called a character win.

Coming off back-to-back losses that resulted in five goals allowed, the Red Stars were in need of a momentum shift, and Kayla Sharples said the victory was just that. Sharples, who scored the lone goal in the 33rd minute off a header on a cross from Mallory Pugh, will see her role amplified without Davidson, Ertz and Krueger.

Sharples said she isn’t focused on shifting her mentality during this period of the season, but rather tapping into the confidence she already has established. Miller, who earned her first NWSL regular-season clean sheet in Naeher’s absence, said the team’s goal is to be at the top of the standings when the Olympic break is over.

Next up for the Red Stars is a home match against the Houston Dash at 5 p.m. Sunday. Dames has said on more than one occasion that if his team wasn’t creating chances, he would be worried. In the second half of the season, he expects things to balance out.

“The players that we’ll use during this period all have experience and are ready for it,” Dames said. “I’m excited for this group of players to see what they can do over the next five games. Every game in this league is a daunting task.”