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Chicago Red Stars’ culture rebuild ahead of NWSL draft ‘ongoing work in progress,’ says president Leetzow

The Chicago Red Stars are officially in rebuild mode. After a last-place finish, their new ownership now have their first offseason in charge. The rebuild they have in mind is not a typical one, where a franchise makes mass firings and tears up a roster. Instead Chicago’s emphasis is on building a new culture. This offseason, the Red Stars are looking for players in the upcoming draft who want to be part of that. 

Of course, the perception of this club is one that has been in perpetual rebuilding mode since 2021, primarily due to prior coaches and ownership of the club being named in multiple reports and investigations involving environments that fostered harassment and abuse. Former head coach Rory Dames resigned from the club in 2021, while previous owner Arnim Whisler stepped away from a governance role and placed the club for sale in October 2022 following investigative results. 

Now, in 2024, it finally seems like the organization is truly getting a clean slate that it never really had. MLB Chicago Cubs co-owner and WNBA minority investor Laura Ricketts led the group who purchased the club, a move that was finalized in October 2023. So now, despite another offseason of player departures, the club finally seems to have turned the corner and is working towards its goals of player-first culture building

Ricketts’ first hire was club president Karen Leetzow, former chief legal officer of U.S. Soccer. Leetzow has only been on the job for one month, but her experience during U.S. Soccer’s CBA negotiations with the USWNT were key points in landing her new role. 

“I wasn’t really sure if I wanted to jump into another organization that was, you know, on fire in a lot of ways,” Leetzow told CBS Sports of settling in with Chicago.

“But I had learned so much about the women’s game getting through those CBA negotiations and, so much about the Equal Pay fight. [I] just really realized that if women’s sports is going to get sort of ingrained in the culture of the United States in a way where it can never go away again — women have to step into these spaces and do these jobs.”

Through the fire

The first action by new ownership was a parting of ways with former head coach Chris Petrucelli back in October after the team was officially eliminated from playoff contention for the first time in nine years.

With a head coaching vacancy, job number one was filling that vacancy. It set in motion a months-long search of candidates that spanned global prospects, including other candidates in the Concacaf region, but ultimately Chicago landed on Lorne Donaldson the former Jamaica women’s national team coach.

“I think it’s gonna be an ongoing work in progress for in some ways for years to come. But the real foundational things we need to do. We were so excited to hire [Donaldson] as our head coach. What a stabilizing force he’s going to be for this team.”

Donaldson’s first public club appearance will be at the draft table for the Red Stars during the 2024 NWSL Draft. Leetzow’s role is more focused on the sports business side and she’ll be in Chicago as the draft takes place. Donaldson will instead be joined by a sporting team with newly appointed assistant coach Masaki Hemmi.

He’ll also be joined by assistant general manager Babett Peter, a former World Cup Champion and Olympic Gold medalist with the Germany women’s national team. She previously played for VfL Wolfsburg and Real Madrid and is also the wife of former interim head coach Ella Masar. The duo have a son and are currently expecting their second child.

Peter has been in the role with the team since 2022, though never formally introduced by the club under previous ownership, and Leetzow credits her as a crucial part of a current leadership team that is working tirelessly behind the scenes to better the club as the Club President continues to get acclimated on the job. 

“For me, it was the gaps in personnel to actually do the things that needed to be done right. It’s very hard for me,  being a lead lawyer for the Federation, to come here and suddenly pretend that I have the skills to do player selection. That is just not true. I don’t,” Leetzow quipped about the challenges during her first month.

“I’ve been really lucky we have [Peter] who has been taking the brunt of a lot of the things that we needed to do while we were hiring a coach, and more of herself is a roll your sleeves up kind of woman. [She] has participated in almost every aspect of what we’ve been trying to do and using her time and her talent to help us move this club along.”

Want more coverage of women’s soccer? Listen below and make sure to watch Attacking Third on Golazo Network Monday and Friday for all your USWNT, NWSL and WSL women’s soccer coverage.

Leadership infrastructure

With a club president and head coach in place, the next target is an official General Manager, which Leetzow says the club is on the cusp of hiring. 

“We’re hoping to take that position to a level that it hasn’t been seen in the NWSL, so we’re excited about that,” said Leetzow.

As the club continues to build out a leadership infrastructure for the franchise, there’s the consensus at the franchise that it’ll take more than any singular person. That’s why during hiring processes or player recruitment the organization is also trying to keep things simplified in a rebuild. They want to rebuild club culture while honoring the virtues that defined its past, are reflective of the city, and ultimately be a place where those who represent the Red Stars have fun.

“I’m looking for people to join the organization who really are passionate about winning, but also are passionate about being those culture carriers and who want us to be a fun organization to work for. Winning championships is fun, playing a sport is fun, and God knows coaching should be fun, and the players should be having more fun. That’s what we’re hoping to do, is have more and help us build a culture and build towards being a championship team.”

A rebuild means changes

As far as player departures Leetzow looks at that as a sign of maturation of the NWSL overall. While free agency is a common practice among other pro sports leagues the NWSL is just getting introduced to the practice. 

“Players are now able to command salaries and make moves. It’s hard to begrudge them these opportunities. That’s exactly what we’re fighting for. So, while as the club president I don’t love it when I lose an amazing player, I’m just as likely to take someone else’s amazing player in free agency. That’s what the sport is about. Using those tools of the trade to build. I don’t view it as a problem, per se, or that somehow the club is never going to be successful.”

Sometimes the concept of a rebuild for fans can be an agonizing process. For Red Stars supporters and season ticket holders, they’ve seen consecutive offseasons of massive player departures. During the 2021 offseason, former ownership dealt with multiple player requests for trades out of the club. In 2022, the first era of free agency hit and the club saw more players with longstanding ties make their exit.

This offseason there has been more of the same, as players in the league continue to utilize free agency to navigate their careers. The club isn’t trying to ask its fans to stick with them through a long grueling rebuild, but instead be part of the early stages of a new era. 

They also aren’t asking that of potential players. Word of mouth and reputation could be what reset the club through current and future Red Stars players. Whether or not players want to be those “culture carriers” is also part of the long complex equation of a rebuild. CBS Sports understands the franchise has more player signings coming post-draft and recent reports say Mallory Swanson is close to resigning with the club.

‘We’re going to align ourselves more and more closely with what this city is, which is a beautiful, really hard-working city. We have everything that anybody could possibly want here outside of the soccer pitch. There’s no city in the world that can offer you any more than what Chicago can offer you on every level. Whether you like to be outdoors or in a museum or whatever”

A major city with opportunities for players outside of soccer is only just part of the club pitch to players. New ownership, influx of financial security, and a growing leadership team are also part of the recruitment pitch. Now it includes soccer development with Donaldson alongside a marketable city. 

“[When] talking about the Chicago Red Stars, you’re going to find that this is going to be one of the most competitive places to learn the craft of playing soccer. You’re going to be working with a World Cup level coach who has done extraordinary things and he’s going to push you really hard and you’re going to learn more than you’ve ever learned before. 

You’re going to play with some of the best players in the world. And by the way, you’re gonna have tons of fun. So if that’s not what you want, then you should definitely not come to Chicago. But if that is what you want we are going to have something from a culture standpoint that no one else has. We are so focused on that because of the history we’ve been through, but also because this ownership group is one of the most positive, ambitious, competitive set of women that you’re gonna meet and they want to change the face of this franchise.”

A new story that starts and ends with players

The rebuild is a series that Leetzow believes needs time to tell and ultimately belongs to players and fans. There are plans in place for a robust marketing initiative with an emphasis on relating to the city and general promotion of players. The goal is to make sure local soccer fans are aware that women’s professional soccer is in their market. 

“It’s a chapter, it’s a book we’re writing. Chapter One was base investors coming in and making this amazing investment. Chapter two was hiring a leadership team, which we’re doing now. In chapter three, we’ll be changing the experience for players on the field and for the fans who show up. So that’s what we’re driving towards now. It’s making that a new and exciting experience for them.”

Leetzow admits that the overall process is slow going even for her own liking, but understands that building elite clubs takes time. Especially with a club that is trying to reimagine itself from dark moments. It will begin with providing for the players and maintaining the efforts throughout the future. Failure to put players first means the team continues to fail.

“We are singularly focused on the player experience. Including giving them the ability to compete at the highest level and all the resources they need to win. That is our singular focus. If that translates, reverberates, throughout the rest of the organization the way I hope it will, I think you’ll find that all the other things will come from that. If you focus on the right things, you get to the right outcome. So that’s my hope. That if we stay focused on who this club is, it’s really the players, they make the club, then everything else will fall into place.”

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