On a sunny, windy, spring Saturday at SeatGeek Stadium just outside Chicago, the Red Stars held their 2019 home opener, hosting the Portland Thorns. As part of a doubleheader following the MLS' Chicago Fire, the game boasted a healthy crowd of fans getting a chance to see their National Women's Soccer League team for the first time this year, and they didn't go home disappointed. The Red Stars and Thorns played to a 4-4 draw, with two penalty kicks on the day, a hat trick for Canadian legend Christine Sinclair and three of the game's eight goals netted in a furious final 20 minutes of play.
Going on 13 years in Chicago, the Red Stars are the oldest U.S. women's professional soccer club. The NWSL, now in its seventh season, is the country's longest-running women's professional soccer league. Both are hoping to draw better than ever this year, and the World Cup promises to both interrupt and energize the NWSL season. In 2015, the league experienced then-record attendance after the U.S. women's national team defeated Japan in the Women's World Cup championship; it will look for a similar bump after this summer's tournament in France.
"I think it's huge," Thorns midfielder and 2018 NWSL MVP Lindsey Horan said of the potential for a World Cup bump. "Everyone will be watching, knowing that all these players will be coming back to play with their club team. It could help get fans out to our games back here."
Like the rest of the clubs in the NWSL, the Red Stars and Thorns will have to adjust to the loss of their best players for a stretch of the season (the Women's World Cup runs from June 7 to July 7). The league will be dormant for one week in June during the group stage of the World Cup, but players on teams that make deep runs could miss more than a month. World Cup rosters will be announced in the coming weeks, allowing NWSL coaches to plan around players they'll lose for the tournament. The NWSL is also allowing teams to expand their rosters, up to 22 players, and add four supplemental roster spots that won't count against a team's salary cap.
A rash of injuries last season among the Red Stars thrust some back-up players into larger roles, which should help the team cope with the loss of a handful of superstars, including Australian national team forward Sam Kerr and USWNT midfielder and 2015 World Cup champion Julie Ertz.
"I think we're fortunate that we have a group that got battle-tested last year with all the injuries we had," said Red Stars head coach Rory Dames after Saturday's draw. "It sped up the process for us. It wasn't fun in the time to go through, but I think we're going to reap some big benefits."
Chicago goalkeeper and 2015 World Cup champion Alyssa Naeher has faith that her squad is prepared for the lean times. "We all have the understanding that it takes 20 players to win a championship," Naeher said. "We need every single player to compete. I think that's how we go out there and train, so that when their number is called, everybody is ready and there's no drop-off."
The Thorns, who fell to the North Carolina Courage in the NWSL Championships last season, will lose a handful of key players to the World Cup, as well. The last time the team faced such a challenge, in 2015, was the only season they failed to make the NWSL playoffs.
"I think they're going to be incredible when we leave," said Horan of the Portland players tasked with taking on extra minutes this time around. "They know what standard they have to hold, and every single player is going to step up and do their thing."
The pressure is not only on those who stay home, but on the American women headed to France to defend their title and add to soccer's popularity in the United States.
"Coming off winning the last World Cup, there was a huge bump," said Morgan Brian, Red Stars midfielder and 2015 World Cup champion. "All of us coming back were exhausted, but at the same time we wanted to help grow the NWSL. Going into this World Cup, whether you're a national team player or not, you're wanting success because we want to push this league forward for younger girls in the future."
Making things difficult for those invested in continuing the league's success? An unexpected end to its television partnership with A+E Networks in February. With no television partner for the league this season, and only a deal to stream games online via Yahoo! Sports in place, most fans looking for their soccer fix post-World Cup won't be able to find their favorite stars on television.
Fortunately for Chicago supporters, the Red Stars inked a deal earlier this month with NBC Sports Chicago to broadcast all of the team's regular-season games, beginning with last Saturday's home opener. The network will also present a weekly "Chalk Talk" segment with a player or coach to run on the Red Stars' social media platforms.
"It means everything," said Ertz of the team's new television partner. "That support is huge. When I heard about the deal I couldn't wait for it to get out to the public."
Dames wants fans to understand that the Red Stars are a great product every season, but he knows that another World Cup title would educate people on the serious superstar power right in their backyard.
"I don't want to say that we need a World Cup bump to get more fans out here, because we have a pretty special group, but the U.S. team doing well is a win for all of us -- except maybe Sam," he said of his Australian striker with a laugh. "The better the team does, the more eyes that get on the national team. People find out Julie's right here, Casey [Short]'s right here, Alyssa's right here, Sam's right here. That makes it exciting."
Naeher said she hopes the rest of the teams in the league can also ink a local television deal, while NWSL president Amanda Duffy still has her sights set on finding a national broadcast partner for the second half of the season. Duffy is also leading the search for a new league communications director and a new league commissioner (the NWSL has been without one since March 2017). With just a few weeks until the start of the World Cup, the pressure is on league higher-ups to be ready to fully capitalize on another deep run from the U.S. women's national team.
As for the Red Stars, they're prepping for a visit from Megan Rapinoe and the Seattle Reign FC, hoping one of the biggest breakout stars from the last World Cup run can give them a bump on Saturday.