May 25, 2009

Athletica 2, Red Stars 0

In a battle of two midwestern rivals, Saint Louis defeated Chicago 2-0 before 4461 fans at Toyota Park on Saturday night. Eniola Aluko was the offensive star of the game, scoring one goal and causing an own goal on the other. Jillian Loyden, who was starting in place of National Team keeper Hope Solo, filled in nicely earning the shutout in her first action of the year. Chicago took the hard luck loss. They had more chances, but couldn't finish, while Athletica made the most of their chances. Saint Louis was credited with only one shot on goal for the match, while Chicago had six, all turned away by Loyden.

Several starters were missing for both teams. Chicago had four players called up for the National Team contest, including Carli Lloyd, Marian Dalmy, Megan Rapinoe, and Lindsay Tarpley. Athletica had two players called up for the US, captain Lori Chalupny and Solo, as well as one for the Canadians, Melissa Tancredi. Kia McNeill was serving her one game suspension and Daniela is probably out for the season with her leg injury.

First Half

Saint Louis did well with possession early on. A foul gave Athletica a free kick from 20 yards out directly in front of the Red Star goal, but Francielle hit a rather weak shot into the Red Star wall and it was easily cleared.

Chicago got their first scoring chance at the 16 minute mark off of a corner kick. Cristiane rose for the header and put it on net only to have Loyden tip it over the goal. It was the first of several nice saves by Loyden.

At the 20 minute mark, Aluko appeared to be through for a breakaway, but it was whistled for offsides. Then Francielle whistled a shot over the crossbar at the 24 minute mark. It was shortly thereafter when Athletica broke through with the first goal of the game.

The play started with Kendall Fletcher sending a long ball to the corner that was well placed for Aluko to run down. Aluko controlled the ball and beat the defender to the outside, putting her one-on-one against the Red Star keeper, Caroline Jönsson. She dribbled to the 6 yard box at a steep angle and sent a cross intended for Saint Louis striker Kerri Hanks, that instead deflected off Chicago defender Ifeoma Dieke over Jönsson's head for the goal. It was the first own goal in the history of the league. Even though it was credited as an own goal, Aluko should be given credit for a great effort which led to it.

As the half wore on, Chicago put more pressure on. Cristiane sent a nice pass through to Karen Carney who shot just high and wide of the goal. At the 37 minute mark, it was Carney again, as she dribbled to the top of the box and hit a hard shot that Loyden just managed to tip over the bar. On another crossing attempt, Loyden barely outjumped Frida Östberg for the ball.

In spite of the Chicago pressure, it was Athletica that scored again. Angie Woznuk sent a ball into the box that Aluko and a Red Star defender went up for, but neither got cleanly. The ball fell to Fletcher's feet at about 15 yards out and she got off a shot that was blocked by Dieke. The ball went directly to Aluko who was wide open and she made no mistake in finishing it. It was her 2nd goal of the season.

Chicago had one more chance late in the half as Brittany Klein got loose after a scramble for a header at the top of the box. Her sliding shot went just wide of the goal. The half ended with Athletica on top, 2-0.

Second Half

The 2nd half opened with Saint Louis nearly making it 3-0. A series of nice passes in the midfield area set up Elise Weber heading up the left side. She placed a nice cross to Hanks in the box, who under pressure, mishit the shot and Jönsson was able to track it down.

The Red Stars had most of the 2nd half chances. Heather Garriock shot wide in the 52nd minute. Garriock, who has been plagued by injuries this year, appeared to be hurt once again and had to be taken out at the 56 minute mark, having played only 11 minutes.

In the 60th minute, it was the Carney-Cristiane connection again as Carney passed to Cristiane who made a nice move to get off a shot, but she didn't get as much on it as one might have hoped and Loyden made the save. A few minutes later, Carney got off a long shot that was handled easily by the Athletica keeper. At the 73 minute mark, Östberg shot from about 25 yards out that went straight to Loyden.

The Red Stars had their best chance of the 2nd half in the 84th minute. Klein crossed the ball to the far side of the box onto the foot of Östberg, who found herself unmarked from about 12 yards out to Loyden's left. She hit a hard shot that Loyden made a kick save with her right foot, probably her best save of the match.

From that point on, there was little doubt as to the outcome of the match. Athletica improved their record to 2-2-2, while Chicago fell to 2-3-2. The two teams are now tied for 5th place with 8 points, with Saint Louis having a game in hand.

Overall Impressions

Certainly Aluko and Loyden had great games, but Athletica played very well as a team and several players had good games. I thought Francielle played her best match of the year. Tina Ellertson was solid and captained the defense in front of Loyden. Although they didn't get a lot of scoring chances, Athletica did put together some nice passing at the midfield as it appears they are embracing Coach Jorge Barcellos' Brazilian style of play. Several replacement starters, including Niki Cross, stepped up their game.

I'm at a loss the explain what's going on with Chicago. They have talent and they certainly had chances. Cristiane and Carney kept Loyden on her toes all night, but either she made the saves or they shot wide. The Red Stars have now gone over 300 minutes without a goal. Surely missing several players hurt them, but Saint Louis was also missing a number of key players and seemed to adapt better. Chicago was a bit unlucky on both goals, but in both cases, Athletica forced the play that caused that luck. The Red Stars now have a week and a half to recover before traveling to Los Angeles for a June 3rd game. Athletica's next game is also against the Sol next Saturday.

Other Notes

It was the first time I had ever been to Toyota Park and I was very impressed with the facility. It's a great venue to watch soccer. I also can't thank enough the Chicago organization and fans for their hospitality. Although St. Louis and Chicago are rival cities in most sports, there was certainly goodwill between the two fan groups who both want their teams and the league to succeed.

It was a special night for several of Athletica's players. Erin Walter, Elise Weber, and Erin Kane are all from the Chicago area. Weber has started the last 4 games, but for Walter, it was her first time making the traveling squad. It was great to see the DePaul graduate see her first action of the season in front of her hometown family and friends in the 70th minute.