Triumphs and tribulations of the Chicago Red Stars franchise reflects the evolution of the NWSL

By Krystina Iordanou
Medill Reports

Within a seven-day span, the Chicago Red Stars experienced the triumph and defeat that comes with competition.

On a beautiful autumn Sunday in Chicago, the Red Stars defeated the 2018 Thorns to reach their first National Women’s Soccer League Championship in franchise history. Just seven days later, the Red Stars suffered the largest deficit loss ever in an NWSL championship, losing 4-0 to the North Carolina Courage on the reigning team’s turf.

Despite the lopsided loss, the Red Stars showed an inspiring effort throughout the entire 90 minutes, even after going down three goals in the first half. The Red Stars journey as an organization emulates the same hurdles we have seen the league struggle through since its inaugural season in 2013.

Click on the boxes above to advance the timeline. (Timeline by Krystina Iordanou/Medill)

The Red Stars are the first and only team to make the NWSL playoffs consecutively over the last five seasons. Although they’ve been successful during the regular season, the Red Stars have suffered four consecutive semi-final losses until their Championship breakthrough this season.

“We’ve finished out this season on a high and I feel like in the past it’s not been like that, so this year is a little bit different,” said Red Stars midfielder Vanessa DiBernardo after the semi-final game last month.

Similarly, this feeling of change has been experienced throughout the entire NWSL, with major successes for the league’s TV deal, endorsements and expansion opportunities.

“It’s been a year of a lot of transition for the NWSL and a year where we look forward for the next several years, with a lot of optimism,” said Amanda Duffy, the NWSL president. “I think we are very well positioned, and our owners are very excited for what’s in store for this league going forward.”

Since its creation in 2013, this momentum has not always been the case for the NWSL. In 2014, players were making anywhere from $6,000 to $30,000 a season, with the overall team salary cap being only $200,000. This money cap was only made possible because of the U.S. Soccer federation’s support of the league. Currently, any player contracted on the U.S. women’s soccer team, such as Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe, has their club salary financed by the U.S. Soccer Federation.

“We recognize that where we are in player compensation and it’s an important area for the league and for all of the owners to continue to improve with the compensation level,” said Duffy.

NWSL President, Amanda Duffy, presents Sam Kerr with the league MVP award. (Krystina Iordanou/ Medill Reports)

During championship weekend, players also expressed frustration with the league’s slow maturation.

“I do think were growing but I do think it’s a little slow. I think about my time in the league when there has been expansion or teams have bought out other teams. But also during that time teams have folded,” said Cari Roccaro, defender for the North Carolina Courage.

Since 2013, the number of teams has fluctuated between eight and 10 franchises as a result of new market expansions, as well as the folding and relocations of current teams. Change has become a common occurrence for a league that has historically struggled to solidify and maintain substantial sponsorships and media partnership opportunities until 2019.

Prior to this season, the league has parted ways with their multiple media partners, most notably A&E Networks, and struggled to attract major sponsors to support players and team from a marketing perspective.

Asked about the growth of the league, Paul Riley, head coach of the North Carolina Courage, said, “I think we’re doing a pretty good job. I feel like there need to be more people accountable in the offices, but I think the World Cup helped. The knowledge of the women’s game helps when the world cup is on. But, while it’s here, you’ve got to make the most of it. Maybe we didn’t make the most of it, we did a decent job on it but not all the way.”

Coach Paul Riley led the North Carolina Courage to two consecutive NWSL Championships in 2018 and 2019. (Erin Donnery)

The excitement surrounding the 2015 and 2019 World Cup, with the U.S. victories, has brought positive media attention to women’s soccer domestically. The struggle has been to maintain and grow this momentum to further develop the league without relying heavily on U.S. national team players only.

Former U.S National Team player and current North Carolina Courage defender Heather O’Reilly talked about her newly found appreciation for non-national team players and their importance to the growth of the game.

Heather O’Reilly spent 14 years with the U.S. Women’s National Team until she retired from international play in 2016. (Noah Salzman)

“I think when you are involved with the national team, you don’t really understand or appreciate the day-to-day grind that goes into when you are a non-national team player. What you are doing to keep your body prepared in the off season on very low salary, battle week in and week out,” said O’Reilly.

The women that encompass this league are some of the greatest athletes and people throughout the sports profession. From students to mothers to World Cup champions, each individual illustrates the strength and time commitment needed to perform at the highest level, despite their compensation and advantages not reflecting their male counterparts.

Alyssa Mautz, current and longest tenured Chicago Red Stars player, spoke about the growth of the league and the women who make it possible.

“I think it’s a strong core group of girls just doing what we love and being role models for others. I don’t believe there are many girls only in the league for the money,” said Mautz. “You’re trying to grow women’s sport to show girls that you can do anything, which I think is so important to see.”

To the NWSL’s credit, overall player compensation has climbed drastically since the inaugural season. In the 2020 season, the league salary cap will jump to $650,000, which is a 225% increase from the 2014 season. The range of salaries remains dramatic, even with the minimum salary jumping to $20,000, a 233% increase since 2014.

The 2019 transition year proved to be a turning point for the league when Budweiser announced they had become a national sponsor of the league. The attention of big company sponsorship intrigued many prospective new owners on the league’s financial and commercial viability. The financial stability not only allowed the league to increase salaries for the 2020 season, but also brought further expansion. Earlier this month, the league announced that Proof Louisville F.C. will be joining the league in the 2021 season.

Similarly, the Red Stars have grown accustomed to the same maturation process during their time in the league. Over the last five seasons the Red Stars have worked their way up the standings from 5th in 2014 to 2nd in the 2019. The slow but rewarding improvements led Chicago to their best season yet, bringing them to the NWSL Championship game for the first time in franchise history.

Both the Red Stars and the NWSL have endured the slow, and at times, grueling process of building a global brand and organization. Now, the future looks bright for sustained success for a league the Red Stars hope to win in the 2020 season.

Photo at top: Julie Ertz thanks fans as she recieves her runner up medal. (Erin Donnery)