Red Stars and NWSL rivals trying to break up logjam in year of unusual parity

Teams are gearing up for one of the most competitive fights for a playoff spot in the eight-year history of the league.

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Kealia Watt

Kealia Watt #2 of Chicago Red Stars battles for ball control against Katie Naughton #25 of Houston Dash during the first half at BBVA Stadium on May 29, 2021 in Houston, Texas.

Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

Separation among the top teams in the National Women’s Soccer League isn’t coming easily this year, with the fourth-place Red Stars and the fifth-place North Carolina Courage both sitting at 17 points, just five points behind the first-place Portland Thorns.

The bottom half of the standings is equally tight, with the sixth-place Houston Dash at 16 points, just five ahead of ninth-place Racing Louisville. Last-place Kansas City is the furthest out of the mix with a paltry four points.

In a league with this much parity, at what point do the points become a focal point?

The Red Stars say they’re not there yet.

“I remember in the beginning of the league, there was such separation between the top two teams and the bottom two,” midfielder/forward Kealia Watt said. “Towards the end of the season, the points really come into play.”

The Red Stars are gearing up for one of the most competitive fights for a playoff spot in the eight-year history of the league. Coach Rory Dames has preached the importance of securing points while goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, midfielder/defender Julie Ertz, center/left back Tierna Davidson and defender Casey Krueger are off competing in the Olympics.

Only the top six NWSL teams earn a playoff spot. It’s a fine balance between urgency and ease.

Coming off a 2-1 loss to Gotham FC last Sunday, the Red Stars have a tough three-week stretch ahead, starting with the Washington Spirit on Sunday. In their last match against the Spirit, the Red Stars secured three points in a 1-0 win. But this time, the Spirit are coming off a convincing win over Racing Louisville.

Defender Bianca St. Georges has been working her way back from injury this season, playing under 200 minutes for the Red Stars but drawing two red cards, including one last Sunday against Gotham FC.

“Bianca has a tremendous amount of ability and a huge ceiling,” Dames said. “[But] she has some areas that she has to improve in,” including positioning and decision-making.

St. Georges had a breakout season for the Red Stars while playing in the NWSL bubble in Utah last year and followed it with an impressive performance in the Fall Series. That led to her first call-up by the Canadian National Team ahead of the 2021 SheBelieves Cup.

She hurt her knee at training camp with the national team and spent six weeks recovering after a cleanup surgery. Since then, she has been working to get consistent time with the Red Stars after Tatumn Milazzo was tapped to fill her place.

Dames said St. Georges had her best week of practice ahead of the Gotham FC match but was caught out of position and paid the price with a red card for her takedown foul of defender Brianna Pinto.

Getting St. Georges more time is the answer to some of her struggles, Dames said, but the Red Stars don’t have time to spare with 13 games left in the regular season and at least two more without their Olympians.

It’s not quite time to start focusing on point differential, but it’s not far off.

“That’s what’s so interesting, fun and crazy about this year is that at the end of it, people are going to be playing game to game to make it into the playoffs,” Watt said.

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