Blue skies for Chicago Red Stars in NWSL

For parents and players heading to Little League games on the surrounding fields, the line forming outside of Benedictine University sport complex in Lisle might been have been puzzling. Little did they know that just inside the small suburban stadium, some of the best women’s soccer players in the world were ready to kick off.

The atmosphere in the stadium at the Chicago Red Stars’ second home match of the inaugural season of a new women’s soccer league was hopefully optimistic.

Two former American-based professional women’s leagues, the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA) and Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS), both buckled under mounting bills after only a handful of seasons. The new league, The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) is dedicated to minimizing costs.

“It’s a minor miracle that the league is up and running this year,” said Red Stars General Manager Alyse Lahue. “We’d love to have more staff, that’s the top of my wish list…but I think for the first year, it was important for us to stay modest.”

Player salaries range from $6,000 to $30,000, incredibly low for professional athletes. However, a new feature of this league is the inclusion of the Canadian and Mexican soccer federations and the financial backing of the national programs to finance the salaries of big-name players from the national teams.

For the women’s soccer community, having a running league is very important.

DePaul’s women’s soccer team, led by head coach Erin Chastain, is just wrapping up its spring season. For DePaul’s players, having a professional team in the Chicago area is an opportunity to learn from the best.

“Our team learns a lot from watching the league, it gives them role models to look up to and … I think it’s just important for all the younger soccer players to have a professional league just to show that everyone’s supportive of women’s soccer and to be able to see it played at the highest level in our city,” said Chastain.

DePaul is represented in the league by Red Stars defender Julianne Sitch, who graduated from DePaul in 2006 and is happy with to be a part of the Chicago team.

“I love playing in Chicago, it’s my hometown,” said Sitch. “I love all the girls, the coaches have done a great job of bringing in amazing players, but also just really good hard working blue collared people.”  

As an alumni, Sitch is allowed to join DePaul’s team for occasional trainings, so while Chastain has never coached Sitch, she is familiar with her as a player.

“She’s just a high-energy, athletic, really passionate soccer player. Her best spot is on the flank somewhere. Anyone would love to have that kind of work rate on your team. You can always count on her coming in and bringing it.”

The NWSL venues are often as small as the salaries. The Red Stars play at Benedictine University in the western suburb of Lisle.

While this makes  it difficult for car-less Chicagoans to get to a game, it spares the team to the costs and inevitably empty seats of a bigger, more expensive stadium in the city.

“We’re planning on organizing transportation from the city,” said Lahue. “And we want to make it affordable, especially for students, so we’ve offered extremely discounted tickets, and we’ve organized tailgating before the game as well.”

The Red Stars will play a total of 11 home games, from April to August against teams from Boston, western New York, New Jersey, Portland, Seattle, Washington D.C. and regional rival Kansas City. The team tied Seattle 1-1 in its April 14 home opener and lost to Portland 2-0 April 27. The outcome of a scheduled second match up against the Portland Thorns on May 12was determined after this paper went to press.

After the game, as volunteers carried track and field hurdles onto the sidelines in an attempt to keep fans off the field, the players mingled with fans.

While many fans flocked to U.S. National Team star and Thorns forward Alex Morgan, others tried to get the attention of Red Star Maribel Dominguez of the Mexican federation or chanted for Red Stars midfielder Lori Chalupny.

At midfield, Red Stars goalie Erin McLeod swapped soccer stories with a group of young Canadian fans.

“That’s a total credit to the players,” said Lahue. “[They] are willing to stay after every single game, and these are Olympians and world class athletes. I don’t think that’s something that would happen with most Chicago teams. That’s something that’s unique to women’s soccer.”

As fans fervently thanked players for autographs and pictures, players echoed back their gratitude.

“Thanks for coming out,” they said. “Keep supporting the league.”