A new National Women’s Soccer League season begins in earnest Saturday for the Chicago Red Stars, who hope their match against Racing Louisville FC at SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeview is the start of a new era.
The team that takes the field Saturday — as it has since the beginning of the preseason Challenge Cup tournament — will be much different from the one that fell short of winning the club’s first NWSL title last fall.
That defeat kicked off a painful offseason, as club ownership allowed former coach Rory Dames to resign hours before a bombshell Washington Post report detailed years of abuse allegations against Dames at the Red Stars and Eclipse Select, a youth club Dames founded in 1997.
“Everyone knows last year the entire league went through a lot,” defender Arin Wright said April 21 at the team’s 2022 jersey unveiling. “There was a lot of healing to be done.”
Chicago wasn’t the only NWSL club to confront coaching abuse. Earlier this week, the Houston Dash suspended coach and general manager James Clark over initial findings in a joint NWSL and player association investigation into “current and historic complaints of discrimination, harassment and abuse.”
New Red Stars coach Chris Petrucelli knew he was stepping into a difficult situation when the Red Stars hired him in February.
“I knew, we all knew, that I was walking into an environment where there had been some issues in the past,” Petrucelli said Thursday. “I’ve tried to be very respectful of the players as a whole and individually as well. The interesting thing is from the day that I’ve got here, all I’ve seen is happy faces. All I’ve seen is players that are trying hard, players that are doing their best and players that love what they’re doing, love each other and love their club.”
In addition to arriving in the wake of an abuse scandal, Petrucelli is adjusting to the workings of the NWSL and an extended competitive season.
Petrucelli joined the Red Stars after going 427-182-54 as a Division I coach over 31 years, most recently at Southern Methodist University. He won the 1995 national title at Notre Dame and earned back-to-back coach of the year honors in ‘94 and ‘95. He coached at Texas for more than a decade and also coached the U.S. under-19 and under-21 national teams.
Petrucelli’s comments echo the tone of longtime Red Stars Vanessa DiBernardo and Wright.
“It was something that was needed, and I think it was voiced by us, the players,” DiBernardo said April 21.
Working through a roster overhaul and gelling with front-office changes such as associate GM and former Red Star Michelle Lomnicki has been a complex process.
Lomnicki will primarily manage player contracts and personnel matters, a role that previously was left in the head coach’s hands.
“I think our club has done a very good job of making the changes and moving things around to elevate this club and move beyond what has gone wrong,” Wright said. “We’re ready to move forward and step into the next chapter.”
There are other changes players say make them feel better supported. The club hired a human resources employee during the offseason and now has posters in the locker room about an anonymous hotline for reporting wrongdoing.
“It’s nice having posters in our locker room of places where we can call and text to have support,” new signee and Arlington Heights native Amanda Kowalski said. “I think that’s super important. Not only are there resources available, but that we know that they’re there.”
Wright said earlier this month the team’s new culture is “very good” but added the Red Stars need to be “mindful of what was in the past… so we don’t fall back into those same patterns.”
Forward Ella Stevens said Thursday that ensuring the club moves in the right direction off the field is what is most important, adding that a “positive environment” beyond soccer ultimately factors into on-field results.
“When you feel supported and are happy playing and are where you want to be, your performance shows,” Stevens said.
Injuries have already plagued the team: defender Tierna Davidson suffered an ACL tear in preseason and forward Kealia Watt is still rehabilitating from her own ACL tear, which she sustained in the 2021 NWSL semifinal. Defender Casey Krueger and midfielder Sarah Woldmoe are each on maternity leave.
That hasn’t stopped Petrucelli from wanting to set a high bar competitively.
“I want to (win a championship),” Petrucelli said Thursday. “I want our team to do that. I want our team to have a chance to celebrate success and enjoy the experience along the way.
“I don’t feel external pressure, but I think you look at it and you go, ‘This is a team that historically has been fighting for a championship and we should be doing the same.’”
Star forward Mallory Pugh is working her way back from a concussion, and midfielder Morgan Gautrat is likely to miss more time with a calf injury.
“There’s a lot of change,” DiBernardo said. “It’s going to take time for all of us to kind of figure each other out. We have older players who have played with each other for a while, but we also have younger players who are coming into this league and this environment.”
That puts the onus of setting the tone on veterans such as DiBernardo, the captain, goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher and midfielder Yuki Nagasato, who returned in the offseason.
“We are trying to jell and work together, and it’s going to be a process,” DiBernardo said. “But the environment is good and we feel good moving forward.”
Chicago Local 134, the Red Stars supporters group, in December called for majority owner Arnim Whistler to sell his controlling stake in the team, saying at the time it would not “complete payment for our season tickets or buy merchandise from the team.”
Whistler has not sold his majority stake.
“I’ll be here as long as I’m needed,” Whistler told the Tribune in February. “I think I’m still needed a bit. Certainly not being asked to leave, but if and when that’s the right thing to do, I will always do right by the club.”
On Wednesday, Chicago Local 134 announced it will support the club for the 2022 season after boycotting games during the Challenge Cup.
The group will silence all chanting and drums during the 10th minute of each match to “serve as a reminder of the continuing importance of our concerns.”