Semifinal Preview: North Carolina Courage host Chicago Red Stars … in Portland

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On Saturday, the Portland Thorns defeated the Seattle Reign to advance to their second consecutive NWSL Final. The defending NWSL Champions now await the winner of tonight’s contest between the Chicago Red Stars and the North Carolina Courage.

If Chicago advances, it will be the first time Rory Dames gets his team to the championship match. If the North Carolina Courage win, it will be the third consecutive season Paul Riley leads his team (Western New York, 2016 & North Carolina, 2017) all the way to the title game. These two teams have history, so Tuesday night in Portland is guaranteed to be fireworks!

Setting the scene

Last year, Dames and his squad  figured out Riley and the Courage in all three of head-to-heads.  This season, the teams played to a pair of draws, with a Courage win sandwiched between. Of course, the history of the series matters little in a winner or go home semifinal, especially since the back-to-back shield winners will not have home field advantage.

Tonight’s match was originally scheduled for Sunday at Sahlen Stadium in Cary, North Carolina. However, the threat of Hurricane Florence forced a venue change. Both teams will face-off for a spot in the final in Portland, home of the defending champs, and the site of their 2-1 victory over Seattle on Saturday.

Sam Kerr & Company

If Chicago intends to advance, it will need a huge game from Australian striker and two-time Golden Boot winner, Sam Kerr. Of the 38 goals this season, Kerr has scored 16.  The next highest total belongs to Alyssa Mautz (five), followed by Yuki Nagasato (Four).  No other Chicago player has scored more than two goals on the season. Defensively, the Red Stars have let up 28 goals this season. Starting keeper Alyssa Naeher has seven clean sheets in 22 starts with Chicago.

There is no getting around the fact that Kerr is the main target—for Chicago to feed and North Carolina to stop. Despite having no NWSL playoff experience, she is up to the task. “I think as forward we kind of struggle with … if you don’t score you don’t have a good game.  I’ve tried to learn over the last few years that it’s not necessarily the case.” Her skill and ignorance to the pang of defeat in the past several years may work to her teams advantage.  Yet, so too may the vivid memory of the past. 

Veterans like Naeher and defender Julie Ertz carry in spades. Both remember the sting of the 89th minute goal by Denise O’Sullivan which deflected off Ertz and beyond the react of her teammate for club and country.

The year before, Francisca Ordega broke a 1-1 draw in the 11th minute to send the Washington Spirit to the final against the Western New York Flash (now the NC Courage).  Western NY went on to win the final in penalty kicks.  For 10 players on the North Carolina roster, this is their third-straight finals appearance, adding crucial playoff experience to an already dominant team. 

Nevertheless, Dames and his squad are ready to turn the pages of history in their favor. “You want to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best,” Red Stars head coach told the media last week. North Carolina is the tip of the swordSo we’re excited to see what we can do against them.”

The Greatest NWSL Team Ever?

Sure, the above could be a statement, but will anything short of a title diminish the legacy of this North Carolina team? No NWSL team has had a better record, ever! At 17-1-6 this season, the Courage hold the league record in wins, fewest losses, most points (57), lowest goals against average (.71), and largest goal differential (+36).

Where Chicago has one out-of-this-world offensive threat in Kerr, the Courage have multiple scorers. To begin, 2016 Golden Boot winner Lynn Williams has 14 goals and 5 assists for North Carolina in 21 games played. She and Jessica McDonald, the team leader in assists (8) are known as the “Twin Towers”.  They stand at 5’7″ and 6’0″, respectively and offer a perfect balance of speed, size, and physicality to keep defenders on their toes.

The smaller but equally as dangerous (Tiny Terrors?) Debinha and Crystal Dunn each have eight goals for the Courage this season. At 5’2″ and 5’1″, respectively, the pair are devilishly fast and powerful. The formula has worked for the Courage as of late, but will be enough to bring home the second title in three years?

Well, first there is Chicago. Defensively, the Courage roster contains the league leader in minutes played (Abby Erceg) and assists (Jessica McDonald). The Courage also have four players and head coach Paul Riley  nominated for end-of-season awards.  The Courage will however be without the services of MVP Candidate McCall Zerbroni, who suffered a broken elbow while with the U.S National Team.

Unfortunately, injuries are nothing new for North Carolina this season. Between injuries and national team duties, the Courage have manipulated their starting XI multiple times. No doubt, they are hoping the growing pains from earlier in the season will allow them to take the uncertainties of the postseason in stride. “We’ve been pretty consistent I think what’s important for us. We haven’t really had a downturn during the season where we’ve been struggling and lost our form,” said Riley on last week’s media call. 

“Due to that, I think we like our chances.”

You can catch the second semifinals game between the North Carolina Courage and the Chicago Red Stars live on ESPNews at 9:00 p.m ET.

 

Image courtesy of Corri Goates