Even in a typical season, some clubs may define losing a title game as something to hang their hat on; a step in the right direction, albeit a disappointing one. But, for Red Stars forward Kealia Watt, the Challenge Cup was a missed opportunity.
“We didn’t like how it ended,” said Watt. “It was personal for the team, since they made it to the Championship last year as well. It was upsetting – we went through so much in the bubble and were so exhausted. We knew we had more, and just needed a little more time together to get things to click.”
The Red Stars entered the bubble a new-look side – with Watt herself headlining a litany of new acquisitions and rookies. Following the announcement of the Fall Series, Watt and the Red Stars looked at the slate of matches as not only a chance to end the year on a high, but to continue to gel together.
“That’s why I liked the Fall Series – we can end the year on a different note” said Watt. “It was a chance to try new things and work on getting on the same page offensively. It’s been great to be able to work on movement and developing connections with the other forwards – everyone is excited that it’s starting to shine through.”
The tune of the season especially changed for Watt, who left Utah without a goal or an assist. Watt spearheaded Chicago’s attack throughout the fall – not only opening her account with the Red Stars but finishing the campaign with two goals and two assists.
“It felt incredible,” beamed Watt. “Any forward that hasn’t scored yet, especially on a new team – it weighs on you. It was a big relief, it felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders. It was special for me because I never played at SeatGeek Stadium before, I only trained there. To score in my first game was special.”
Watt’s success in the fall correlated not only came with extra chemistry developed with her teammates – but a shift in position as well.
“At the beginning of the Fall Series, Rory talked with me about the number nine role,” reflects Watt. “He liked my defensive presence in Utah, but wanted me closer to the goal and, in some ways, conserving my energy to produce at a higher level. It’s been interesting to learn to connect with wingers and see the game from a different perspective. I’ve even learned more about being a wing while being a number nine. It’s definitely helped me evolve as a player.”
A winger for most of her career, Watt said she was “hesitant” at first to move upfront, a position she had not been “fully immersed in” before this fall. The support of the Red Stars coaching staff allowed Watt to continue to excel in her favorite part of the game: one on one attacking.
“If my back was always to goal, I’m not able to turn and take people on,” explained Watt of her initial hesitation. “I felt that I just posted up a lot. The way we’ve been playing, the way Rory and Scott [Parkinson] have been showing me the nine – there are still so many ways to turn your body and be able to take players on one on one. That’s my biggest strength and I want to get into more of those situations. That’s where I’m most dangerous.”
— NWSL (@NWSL) September 12, 2020
In addition to Watt, Chicago’s offensive surge this fall was powered by a new face to the Windy City – rookie Sarah Luebbert. Luebbert, who netted a goal and added two assists in the Fall Series, has Watt singing her praises.
“She’s an incredible player,” said Watt. “It’s a big jump from college and takes a lot of time and confidence to jump right in and produce. The coolest part is that she listens – she really wants to learn. We give her our thoughts, and she’s just excited to learn and play off of the other forwards. I have so much fun linking up with her, and I think she’s going to develop into a real talent in this league.”
As Watt reflects on the Fall Series, she sees another new, yet familiar position that she has acclimated: leader. A captain in Houston, Watt has begun to establish herself as her own kind of leader at her new club – and has already had a hand in upholding the Red Stars internal culture.
“The great thing is that there are so many leaders – and they lead in different ways,” said Watt. “I try to be a leader on the field – but I also connect with the younger girls and help them develop as players. There are few things bigger in this league than having confidence, and having an older player helping you through that journey. I’ve tried to focus on leading by example, and it’s been amazing. This group is so special – there’s many veterans that have accomplished and seen a lot. That’s one reason why this club has always been so special and so successful.”