After a long regular season, the Chicago Red Stars look to clinch a playoff spot Friday

WGN News Now

CHICAGO – By the length of time itself, the season hasn’t been terribly long, though five-and-a-half months of continued play can certainly be grueling on an athlete.

That’s been the case for players on the Chicago Red Stars, who will wrap up their NWSL regular season on Friday night on the road against the Orlando Pride. It’s their 24 match of this campaign and arguably their most important, as their hopes to qualify for the playoffs for a sixth-straight time depends on their performance.

If they can get a win or a tie, they’re in, and for Kealia Watt, that would complete a journey that’s certainly seemed longer than just a few months.

“If you look back at this entire season, it feels like it’s been years,” said forward Kealia Watt of the 2021 campaign.

There are a few reasons for that, starting with the circumstances surrounding the club on the pitch. Defender Julie Ertz went down with an injury in a season-opening 5-0 loss at Portland that has kept her away from the club for the entire season, for when she returned she was on US national team duty.

That was the case for a few other players on the club, who were called up a few times throughout the season. Included in that were the Tokyo games, which Ertz, Alyssa Naeher, Tierna Davison, and Casey Krueger were away for a few weeks.

Naeher, the team’s top goalkeeper, was injured during the Olympics and has yet to return.

Yet the club has managed to navigate their way through all of that, and have finished the season strong, getting at least a point in seven of their last eight games. That included a win over the league-leading Portland Thorns on September 25th.

It’s put them fourth in the NWSL standings as they sit just one point away from lock ing down a playoff spot.

“I really think we’re in such a good spot,” said Watt. “Getting those girls back from national team duty has been huge and we finally feel like we finally feel like we have everyone here, and we’re feeling great, and the momentum has really swung in our favor.”

Yet results on the pitch have taken a backseat over the past few weeks for many of the league’s players and fans after a report in The Athletic outlined sexual coercion allegations against North Carolina Courage coach Paul Riley. It’s led to a demand from players for major changes in the league and for the NWSL to do more to protect players.

Play was paused in the league for a week, Riley was fired, and league commissioner Lisa Baird along general counsel Lisa Levine were ousted.

While it was a difficult time for Watt and the Red Stars, the veteran forward said she’s encouraged by the changes that have been made.

“I’m really hopeful with how the league has responded and it feels like the league is really trying to protect it’s players and they made changes that needed to happen,” said Watt. “I’m hopeful moving forward, and I think a lot of the girls feel the same way. The No. 1 priority needs to be to protect players. That’s the basic priority that we need in this league and I feel like the league is taking steps to do that.”

You can hear more from Watt on that topic along with the Red Stars’ season in the video above.

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