Red Stars fighting the good fight for free
When the U.S. women's soccer team captured worldwide attention by dramatically beating Brazil in penalty kicks to reach the World Cup semifinals in Germany, Jackie Santacaterina was half a world away.
Yet she could still feel the high of that win as if she were there in person.
Santacaterina, a native of Geneva, is a defender for the Chicago Red Stars soccer team, and she and her teammates were about to play in their own game, a mid-July matchup against the Minnesota Kings at Benedictine University in Lisle. The atmosphere there was electric.
"There was so much excitement after the U.S. won that game against Brazil. I just remember being so proud that night to be on a field and playing soccer," Santacaterina said. "It was cool to see how many people jumped on the bandwagon to support the U.S. team, and I think that created some buzz for our team."
The Red Stars need as much buzz as they can get.
They have spent the entire summer trying to remain relevant in the crowded Chicago sports scene.
Last year, the Red Stars played in the professional women's soccer league called the WPS, Women's Professional Soccer. But a lack of funding and sponsorship dollars for this season prompted team officials to scale back dramatically.
The Red Stars left their former home, Toyota Park, and have spent this summer playing semi-pro ball at local colleges as part of the WPSL, the Women's Premier Soccer League.
They are 10-1 heading into postseason play and will be hosting the league semifinals and championship this weekend at Benedictine.
The hope is that buzz from the Women's World Cup earlier this month, as well as the buzz from the Red Stars' successful run through the WPSL will attract enough investors to warrant a reentry into to WPS for next season.
"This whole summer has been about committing ourselves to the Red Stars' brand, so that people still know we're here," Santacaterina said. "We want to keep a professional women's soccer team in Chicago so that little girls here have a team to cheer for and players to look up to.
"We've been trying to do everything we can this summer to help us get back into the league."
That includes playing for free.
Santacaterina is one of several players on the current roster, including Naperville native Michele Weissenhofer, who used to get a paycheck from the Red Stars as pros.
But now, the roster is a mix of current and former pros as well as current college players and under the semi-pro format, no one gets paid.
It's a way for the Red Stars to save money while mounting their WPS comeback.
"If that's what we have to do, that's what we have to do," Santacaterina said. "It's still a lot of fun for us."
The Red Stars are hoping their fun ends with a championship on Sunday at Benedictine.
Saturday's semifinals open with the Orange County Waves (11-1) taking on the Boston Aztec Breakers (8-2-3) at 1 p.m. followed by the Red Stars against the Tampa Bay Hellenic (10-1-1) at 3 p.m.
Semifinal winners will square off in the title game at 1 p.m. on Sunday.
"We have a lot of local players on our team and we've had a lot of fun playing together," said Weissenhofer, a forward who was the Red Stars' points leader during the regular season. "It was upsetting that we weren't able to play in the pro league this year, but everything we've done in the WPSL this summer has surpassed my expectations.
"We've still gotten a lot of support and we have great fans who are still with us. Hopefully, we kept the word out there and we can continue to do that."