After a dominant regular season that saw the NC Courage go 16-1-7, the team will open the playoffs on Saturday in Cary against the Chicago Red Stars. While North Carolina has stayed in first place for almost the entire NWSL season, they have done it almost by being two completely different teams. At first, it looked like coach Paul Riley would try to regain the attacking form that the team had in 2016. However, due to injuries, the Courage turned into a side that sought to jump to a lead against their opponents and then smother the game to ensure a win.
The team won eight of their last twelve splitting the remaining games with three losses and a draw. They did it rotating the lineup frequently and shifting formations along the way. In that stretch of games, they also did something they did two times previously this year: they lost to the Chicago Red Stars. That means the Courage dropped all three meetings with Chicago in 2017 and will have to reverse that trend when the teams meet for the fourth time.
Nothing has worked when it has come to cracking the Red Stars. Coach Paul Riley has tried a number of different formations and player combinations, still the Red Stars have scored eight goals in the teams’ three meetings. The game sets and interesting challenge for the Courage as they look to repeat as NWSL Champions and win the double.
What to watch for
This is a fascinating matchup because the two teams are so similar to one another. They both feature pacy wing backs, talented central defenders, deep playmaking midfielders, and U.S. Women’s National Team forwards with similar skill sets. In the past matches between them, the things that North Carolina does so well, getting the wing backs into the attack and dominating midfield, Chicago has done better.
Things won’t be any easier for the Courage with the Red Stars coming to Cary. With Morgan Brian joining the team, Chicago has one more midfield option to keep their attacks moving forward and stymie the North Carolina forays forward. In order to come away with a result in the game, NC will have to win the midfield battles they have lost so often and find a way to keep the wingbacks effective in the attack.
In an ideal world, the Courage would come out fast take advantage of an early chance and put Chicago on their heels a bit. If that happens, expect Riley to have his team focus on keeping their shape defensively and try to strike on the counter for a second goal. Of course, this will give Chicago a lot of possession and Christen Press, Sofia Huerta, and Yuri Nagasato time to make a difference in the game.
However, North Carolina has a definite edge in the match: a deep bench. Whether he was just trying to give some players rest to keep them fresh for the playoffs or he was testing his team’s depth, Paul Riley gave a lot of players minutes this year. Those minutes could be crucial if North Carolina is looking for a late goal or needs to make a substitution to see the game out.
How to watch
Lifetime Network 3:30PM; Cary, North Carolina - WakeMed Park