NWSL is back and so are the Chicago Red Stars: Takeaways


The ability to tune in on any given weekend and get at least one great game has always been a main selling point of the NWSL. During the first two weeks of the 2024 season, however, there have already been several entertaining games. The Chicago Red Stars alone are worth the price of at least one subscription fee, there are new players galore making splashes, a nice increase in overall production quality and some milestone records that make you go, “Wow, we really made it this far.”

On that note, Esther’s one-timer for Gotham FC, which gave her team a 1-0 win over the Portland Thorns on Sunday, was the 3,000th goal in the league in its 12th season.

However, it hasn’t been all positive. Multiple players have already experienced some difficult injuries. Imani Dorsey had to leave the field on Friday when she suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon against the Red Stars. The defender had to be helped off the field by two teammates at the end of the first half. After the game, head coach Amy Rodriguez called the moment “devastating.” Dorsey was poised for a comeback season with Utah after taking a break in 2023 to prioritize to her mental health. She openly advocated for herself, and by association, other players to put their mental health needs first.

Overall, it’s still too early to make sweeping statements about any team, but here are some takeaways specifically from the weekend.

One final note, is anyone used to seeing Portland wear red and yellow yet?


Red Stars control their narrative

Two games and two wins for the Chicago Red Stars. Most remarkably, as one of the original NWSL teams, this is the first time Chicago’s ever started a season with back-to-back wins and it’s getting plenty of attention for this season’s start compared to last year’s finish in last place.

There are some real “I told you so” vibes around the past couple of weeks after an offseason that had many questioning how strong the team would be heading into 2024, especially with Casey Krueger and Tierna Davidson leaving in free agency. By the time the season got underway, the Red Stars had not just added head coach Lorne Donaldson but replaced those defensive stalwarts with proven NWSL talent like Sam Staab and Natalia Kuikka.

All eyes right now, however, are on Mallory Swanson as she works her way back from the patellar tendon injury she suffered last April and the subsequent infection complications. She’s managed roughly 80 minutes in both matches so far, and while she hasn’t scored yet, she has had a handful of decent looks. Seattle Reign contained her fairly well on Saturday, but the Red Stars are already figuring out what else that opens up for them. So far, it has produced four goals from four different goalscorers.

The other primary story of the spring in Chicago is goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher’s form. She earned plenty of headlines during the CONCACAF W Gold Cup with the U.S. women’s national team, but she also had two top saves against Utah in Chicago’s opener on the road. She’s made five saves total, and only one was fairly easy.

Compared to last season’s start through the first two games, the Red Stars haven’t drastically cut down on the number of shots on goal they’ve allowed (nine in 2023 compared to seven so far this season). They have cut down on goals from their opponents, only allowing one from the Reign on Saturday compared to five total at this point last year from the San Diego Wave and the Houston Dash in back-to-back losses.

It’s a long season, and two games do not constitute a sample size, but so far it feels like Chicago has already figured out that it doesn’t have to do too much or reach for massive tactical adjustments from match to match to find a result. New head coach Lorne Donaldson might not have NWSL experience, but he has a track record of developing NWSL talent from his time in the youth game in Colorado. He’s honestly better equipped to handle the NWSL than someone coming in from Europe, for instance.

Or, in a shorter version of that point, please consider Steph Yang’s caption for the below photo of Donaldson, “While you were partying, I was coaching in CONCACAF.”


Former Jamaica national team coach Lorne Donaldson now leads Chicago. (Photo by Elsa, Getty Images)

Banger introductions

It was a great weekend if you were a new player in the NWSL and wanted to score a top-notch goal.

Ally Sentnor, Utah Royals

Aside from their incorrect claim (now deleted from X) that Rodriguez was the first former NWSL player to win a game as an NWSL head coach, Friday was a good night for the Royals. Not only did they secure a win over early title contenders the North Carolina Courage, No. 1 draft pick Sentnor also put on a show.

Ji So-Yun, Seattle Reign

AHHHHHHH MOTHERLAND. (Note: This is a contribution by Steph Yang, notably Korean.) The half-volley, the curl, the ping off the inside of the post. PLEASE.

Ji joined the Reign this season after 13 years of playing around the world, including nine years with Chelsea.

Hal Hershfelt, Washington Spirit

The absolute audacity of Hersheflt to turn and shoot this the way she did was something that even shocked the rookie. She made a split-second assessment to see Lysianne Proulx off her line and loop the ball right over her head to place it into the side netting.

Honorable mention: Maximiliane Rall, Chicago Red Stars

It’s not quite a banger, but it is a lovely side-foot first-time touch. Her shot was the kind of thing that any good scorer should bury automatically, and it’s also the kind of thing that’s so, so easy for players to completely beef right in front of goal.

Rall, like Ji, arrived in the NWSL for the first time this season after most recently playing for Bayern Munich in Germany.


Attendance check

Average attendance was up across the board last year in the NWSL, but teams like San Diego and Angel City FC noticeably led the way. The Kansas City Current built its new stadium on the smaller side, but it already feels guaranteed to sell-out (or very close to it) every match. Meanwhile, the Wave reminded everyone that it can hit the mark thanks to its soldout home opener this weekend; Angel City sold out the week before.

In addition to the first two weeks of the regular season, the new-format Challenge Cup between reigning champion Gotham FC and 2023 Shield winner Wave drew an announced attendance of 14,241 fans to Red Bull Arena — more than double Gotham’s average attendance in 2023.

Week 1 Attendance

Home Team

  

Opponent

  

Attendance

  

Portland Thorns

11,500*

Orlando Pride

6,123

Houston Dash

5,878

Chicago Red Stars

20,370*

Washington Spirit

8,557

Bay FC

22,000*

Week 2 Attendance

Home Team

  

Opponent

  

Attendance

  

Angel City

6,306

NC Courage

8,161

Seattle Reign

5,494

Bay FC

11,734

Racing Louisville

8,600

KC Current

32,066*

Gotham FC

19,857

*Designated as a sell-out

North Carolina head coach Sean Nahas has never been shy about his desire for better attendance in Cary, NC, and stressed again following their 5-1 win over Houston in week one that the team needs fans in the stands.

“I see the NCAA Final Four selling out — we need to be selling out,” he said. “At the end of the day, the crowd was massive for us. It’s an excitement when we’re playing good football, there’s a buzz.”

The Courage averaged 5,384 fans per game in 2023, and the home opener for 2024 didn’t beat that figure. It’s not unfair for Nahas and the players to think they deserve better numbers through the gates considering their usual standard of performance. They’ve been holding up their end of the bargain. “This is the foundation,” Nahas said.

The Courage isn’t the only team that needs to figure out how to buck the haves-and-have-nots trend of attendance, with the Red Stars, Orlando Pride and Racing Louisville all in the 5,000-7,000 range. The Red Stars did set a new home opener record this weekend, and so did the Dash with 8,600 fans watching the scoreless draw against Louisville in person. Teams are sharing resources and knowledge across the league regarding ticket sales, but the start to 2024 looks to be mostly more of the same for these clubs, with some slight increases but no needle truly moved.

The first version of the Utah Royals was one of the more reliable attendance numbers in the league, and their return with a sold-out crowd was a promising sign it will be more of the same. Yet the 8,161 in attendance in week 2 was less than half the size of the opening weekend crowd. For the other 2024 expansion team, we’ve yet to see what Bay FC’s sales team can do, with their home opener against Houston coming this weekend.

The real question marks for me on attendance are Gotham FC and the Reign. Gotham had a massive offseason and is coming off a championship win. They opened the top bowl for their Challenge Cup match against the Wave — an opponent that definitely boosts numbers. In Seattle, a double-header with the Seattle Sounders in MLS and big games around Megan Rapinoe’s retirement helped show that big events could fill Lumen Field last year, but can they do it every week? It will be interesting to see if the sale to the Sounders impacts attendance numbers at all, especially if there’s some extra budget tossed their way.

(Top photo: Daniel Bartel, USA TODAY Sports)





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