The Chicago Red Stars are preparing for their second consecutive NWSL finals appearance this weekend and will face off against Houston Dash. The Red Stars are used to the playoffs, having made six consecutive NWSL postseason appearances. But the team is still searching for their first ever NWSL championship title.
Chicago's playoff experience is one of many storylines heading into this weekend, as the club has several players that have been with the team for five years or longer. Last year, Chicago achieved a club record for wins, but ended with a second-place finish as the team lost in the 2019 Championship final to the North Carolina Courage, 4-0.
Less than a year later, Chicago -- with a large roster of first- and second-year Red Stars to complement a handful of veterans -- is competing for another trophy. Among the team's veterans is longtime midfielder Danielle Colaprico, a Red Stars center-mid, who spoke with CBS Sports ahead of the Challenge Cup final to discuss Chicago's playoff journeys and what's on the line Sunday.
Colaprico has been with the club since being drafted in 2015, and long been considered a top-tier talent within the NWSL.
During her time with Chicago, she earned 2015 Rookie of the Year honors and has been named to three NWSL second XI's. Colaprico has won a club trophy recently, too. While on loan during the 2018-2019 NWSL offseason, she won a championship with Sydney FC in Australia's W-League. Her strong performances over the seasons have also earned her several invitations into camps with the U.S. women's national team.
"It's pretty crazy, I feel like it was yesterday when I was a rookie, and I feel time has just flown," Colaprico said. "Fortunately enough here at the Red Stars, (coach Rory Dames) has always tried to keep the same core group of players together which is great in terms of chemistry on and off the field. It makes it so much easier for us to shake off the offseason at first because we are used to each other's tendencies on the field. We just know each other so well as players at this point."
Like all teams this year, Chicago's preseason got abruptly cut short due to the coronavirus pandemic. Colaprico says it was a challenge for a team that was so used to having training camp look and feel a specific way, and as quarantine grew longer and longer, the uncertainty of whether or not soccer would return began to create an uneasy feeling.
"I think just being stuck at home, and just dealing with all the unknown," Colaprico said. "That we didn't know if we were going to have a season, we didn't know if we were going to be able to play, we didn't know if we were going to still be able to go home. To deal with all that mentally, we're also being asked to still do workouts at home, and we're not used to workouts that are without a ball or without a field."
Chicago was one of the teams that had to make adjustments in order to keep up workouts and eventually start small group training that met local and state guidelines. Due to early peaks of COVID-19 in Chicago, that meant having to think outside of the city and the state, The Red Stars found themselves traveling to Wisconsin or Indiana in order to have trainings. If Chicago lifts the trophy on Sunday in Utah, the team will have done so following a shortened preseason that took place in three states.
"We live in Chicago, in the city where there's not many grass fields, and a lot of it is turf, so it's hard in the body," Colaprico explained. "I feel like a lot of us we couldn't even get access to fields to train, so then it was like okay let me just go for a run out on the concrete, which is not good for anyone's body, so I feel in the lead up to the Challenge Cup has been so hard on everyone on our team.
"Mentally, physically, emotionally. It really says a lot about all the girls in the league. But I see it first-hand with my teammates, how strong we are as women, and we'll literally do whatever it takes to play the sport we love, and to put on performances for our fans even if they can't be at the stadium. It just means so much that NWSL was able to get together and allow us to do this."
Ahead of the teams' arrival to Utah, Dames and his coaching staff had plans to utilize the preliminary stage of the Challenge Cup in to give game experience to newer players on the team, while also evaluating individual performances.
For Colaprico it was about building up her minutes over the course of the last month. Carrying a slight injury into the group phase, Colaprico didn't get start until the second match of the preliminary round, but still felt the emotion of the teams' first game against Washington Spirit. The Red Stars had gone through quarantine together, but they also felt the societal shift in the country while being in Chicago, where protests against racial injustice were sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in May.
"I don't know if a lot of people know this, but it was really hard for us as a team. I think with Black Lives Matter— we didn't take that lightly, and I think we probably met two or three times a day about it, even in small groups," Colaprico said. "It was constantly what we were talking about, because in reality, that is what needs to be talked about right now, not soccer.
"We as a team weren't taking that lightly. So going into that first game a lot of us honestly didn't feel prepared, and there's nothing we could have done about it, because our focus was on what can we do to be a change in this world? Yes, it is our profession to play soccer, but at the same time there's something way more important going on in this world that needs to be figured out."
The team went on in group play earning a scoreless draw against Portland, losing to North Carolina on a late-game goal and winning its final group match against Utah. Colaprico feels the month-long journey in Utah has brought the Red Stars closer, and that their best soccer is still ahead of them.
"We made it a lot harder on ourselves, and it had kind of taken a toll on us, and heading into the quarterfinal I think that it was kind of a nice reset for us," she said. "It was like, OK, we really need to turn it on if we want to make anything out of this tournament. As much as there is a little part of us that might want to just go home to be with family, or significant others, I feel like we just all looked at each other before the quarterfinals and said—we want to be here. We worked so hard these past two months, why would we want to go home now?"
For Chicago, the search for an NWSL title has been a long one. Colaprico has been there through all of them. She says the past experiences aren't adding any extra nerves or weight of expectation, but does feel a sense of responsibility to the city she's come to call a second home.
"It takes a lot to be a Chicago Red Star. It's not easy, and you need to have a grittiness about you, and a fight in you on the field and off," Colaprico said. "You can't just step onto our team and think that it's going to be easy."
Despite their playoff record, Colaprico doesn't define Chicago's success by missed opportunities, but by the culture the team has come to define as a blueprint for others to mirror.
"It comes [with] being from here. Everything that's going on in the city of Chicago, a lot of things are not easy, and there's going to be a fight, and there needs to be a change," she said. "And I feel like that's like one of the main things that I embrace about being a Red Star, that not everything is just handed to us, we need to work for everything that we get. We just need to bring that fight til the very last second, it's what's very special about being a Red Star."