Red stars aligned off the field, too

Play­ers bond­ing over food, games in tour­ney bub­ble

Chicago Sun-Times - - RED STARS BEAT - BY AN­NIE COSTABILE | acosta­bile@sun­ | @an­niecosta­bile

One high­light of Red Stars for­ward Kealia Watt’s day is in the morn­ing when the team leaves their ho­tel for train­ing.

The Red Stars are all liv­ing in­di­vid­u­ally, but they’re shar­ing a ho­tel dur­ing the NWSL Chal­lenge Cup in Utah with the North Carolina Courage, Port­land Thorns and Wash­ing­ton Spirit.

The few min­utes they share pass­ing through the ho­tel are the only mo­ments play­ers have to so­cial­ize with friends on op­pos­ing teams out­side of the time they spend on the field as com­peti­tors.

“We all try to talk as we walk past each other, but you re­ally can’t,” Watt said. “We’re not even sup­posed to get on the same el­e­va­tor as other teams, and ev­ery­one’s tak­ing it se­ri­ously. We’re see­ing other leagues hav­ing is­sues, so we’re re­ally try­ing.”

A typ­i­cal day in the NWSL bub­ble starts with an 8 a.m. wake-up.

The Red Stars had this week off from matches, so their train­ing time has looked slightly dif­fer­ent ahead of their fi­nal qual­i­fy­ing match Sun­day against the Utah Roy­als.

Train­ing ses­sions this week started at 11:30 af­ter an op­tional break­fast at 9:15. Watt said the food pro­vided by the league is great, es­pe­cially com­pared to what she has seen in other bub­bles. Still, she said ev­ery­one needs to switch it up from time to time, and dif­fer­ent con­tact­less de­liv­ery ser­vices are used for those spe­cific crav­ings.

One fa­vorite for many of the play­ers is a com­pany called Crumbl Cook­ies. The cook­ies come in fla­vors such as Lucky Charms, Lemon Pop­py­seed and Nut­ter But­ter. They are served warm in a bright pink box, mak­ing it easy to spot when any team is in­dulging, Watt said.

The evenings are spent with team­mates, usu­ally watch­ing soc­cer. Still, it isn’t all busi­ness in Utah.

“Rachel Hill brought this card game, and it’s su­per com­pet­i­tive,” Watt said.

NERTZ is the name of the game, and as re­lent­less as the Red Stars are known to be on the field, they keep that same en­ergy off of it. Be­cause of the stress in­volved, play­ers cau­tiously carve out time in the day for a game so they don’t dis­rupt im­por­tant events, such as sleep.

All of the Red Stars have played at least once, but not ev­ery­one loves the in­ten­sity NERTZ brings out of its com­peti­tors.

“Some­times I can’t han­dle the ex­tra stress, so I’m like, ‘I’m out,’” mid­fielder Danielle Co­laprico said.

The game is played with part­ners, and it’s essen­tially a race to get rid of all the cards in your hand. As soon as you do, you scream “NERTZ,” which Co­laprico said is the most hys­ter­i­cal as­pect of the game. Mor­gan Brian earned the ti­tle of MVP.

“Ev­ery­body wants to be her part­ner,” Watt said

“She al­ways calls ‘NERTZ,’ and all of us still have so many cards left in our hands,” Co­laprico said. “We all get so up­set.”

The Red Stars try to spread the wealth, mak­ing sure each below-av­er­age player is paired with some­one like Brian. Hill, Makenzy Do­niak and Yuki Na­gasato are also well-re­spected in the game.

It’s just a card game, but NERTZ has helped a team filled with new faces es­tab­lish con­nec­tions that carry onto the field. The bub­ble, in gen­eral, has pro­vided a unique ex­pe­ri­ence to share mo­ments and cre­ate bonds that might not have hap­pened oth­er­wise.

Red Stars coach Rory Dames hasn’t been shy about us­ing the qual­i­fy­ing round to de­velop a rhythm given all of the team’s changes in the off­sea­son. The team hasn’t scored in its first three matches, putting it at the bot­tom of the Chal­lenge Cup stand­ings.

The high-in­ten­sity prac­tices this week have fo­cused on get­ting ev­ery­thing to click, much like the play­ers have off the field. ✶


Red Stars for­ward Kealia Watt heads the ball dur­ing an NWSL Chal­lenge Cup game in Her­ri­man, Utah.

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