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Playoff losses a driving force for Red Stars

Coach Rory Dames and the Red Stars kick off their season tonight. | ISI Photos, courtesy of the Red Stars

Coach Rory Dames has a message for anybody already thinking about the Red Stars finally winning an NWSL playoff game this year:

Before advancing in the postseason, first a team must work to improve daily. Then it still needs to reach the four-team postseason in a league Dames calls the world’s best.

“The third thing is, once you’ve accomplished one and two, hopefully you’ve done enough and prepared enough and developed enough to give yourself a chance to win the first game and get to the second game,” Dames said, “and then win the second game.”

Dames and the Red Stars open Saturday in Cary, North Carolina, against the North Carolina Courage. Last year, the eventual-champion Courage ended the Red Stars’ season with a 2-0 semifinal victory. The loss was the fourth straight season the Red Stars were eliminated a game short of the final.

“It seems like we’ve been cursed almost, but I think that is more of a driving force for our team to really try and overcome that hurdle,” defender Katie Naughton said.

That drive should help the Red Stars as they churn through their schedule. Regardless of what happens during a challenging early stretch that includes two of the first five against North Carolina, the Red Stars can’t jump that playoff hurdle until October.

That means they will have to keep their concentration, even with their ultimate goals months away.

“It’s more of all of us holding each other accountable for whatever it is that we’re doing on the day, whether it’s tactics or technical work or whatever it is,” Naughton said.

Unlike last season, when they were adjusting to life after trading Christen Press and getting Australian striker Sam Kerr, the Red Stars enter with more stability. The offseason saw no trades that size, and 16 players return.

The depth of the roster, however, will be tested. Kerr, Julie Johnston, goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher and probably others will be called to their national teams for the World Cup. NWSL does take a break from June 3-14, but many of the Red Stars’ players will miss considerable time before, during, and after the tournament.

Dames has been preparing for that crunch, and not just recently. Drafted in 2018, Emily Boyd will likely step in for Naeher, while forward Katie Johnson was brought in over the offseason to help compensate for Kerr’s absence. Dames said the Red Stars have a “pretty solid nucleus” in the midfield that can handle any other temporary departures.

“It’s something we’ve been planning for two years out, developing some players,” Dames said.

The Red Stars hope those plans pay off. But there’s plenty of work before they do.

“Every day is a new lesson, a new learning curve for us,” Naughton said. “If we can get better every day leading up to the game on the weekend and then ultimately getting back into where we were last year and overcoming that obstacle, it’s just more of taking it day by day.”