The NC Courage hosted the Chicago Red Stars in the NWSL Semifinal on Sunday afternoon. With a chance to advance to the NWSL Championship on the line, North Carolina would have to do something they’d failed to do all season, beat the Red Stars. For their part, Chicago was looking to make it to the final after a somewhat up and down season, but one in which they looked like a team that wouldn’t be an easy out in the playoffs.
As the match began it seemed like Chicago would come out and try for an early goal. Their aggressiveness almost paid off when Julie Ertz got a shot off in the 3rd minute off of a corner. However, they quickly showed that they would struggle to maintain possession as the half wore on. The failed to send numbers forward to really trouble the Carolina backline and settled for hopeful crosses when they did manage to get up the field.
As for the Courage, the half had a rocky start. Debinha took a nasty fall and suffered a dislocated elbow. She was removed from the game in the 9th minute as the less technical but still very attacking Kristen Hamilton came on in her place. While the Courage managed to hold possession, they were only successful at sending in crosses or long throw ins with the Red Stars holding players back to deal with the North Carolina attackers.
The Courage did generate a few chances that resulted in loose balls in the box that could have been sent into the goal. However, the Chicago defense held together and cleared away any ball that could have put the Courage ahead. Their best chance of the half came in the 31st minute when Abby Dahlkemper took a free kick that curled into the box but failed to connect with a Courage player.
Although, Chicago seemed hesitant to push forward, allowing the Courage to easily deal with their attacks, they did have their chances. The best came when the Courage were nearly caught in a lackadaisical moment as a ball was played through to Christen Press who forced keeper Katelyn Rowland to come off of her line and past the top of the 18 yard box. Shockingly, she failed to clear the ball but Press wasn’t in position to make a play on the keeper and the defense cleared the ball before the Chicago forward could put it in the empty net.
In the first minute of stoppage time a corner found the head of Abby Erceg who headed the ball down from the far post, it nearly fell to the feet of McCall Zerboni but the Red Stars cleared it from the mouth of the goal. The half ended with neither team really looking that dangerous in attack and both sides tentatively going forward. Each keeper did have to make some saves so it looked like a goal would come in the second half.
The second 45 had a familiar look to the first as the teams re-took the field and each looked for a go-ahead goal. As the half wore on, Chicago seemed content to cede possession more readily and try to strike on the counter. For their part, North Carolina pumped crosses into the box as the Red Stars defense managed to cut out passes in their final third.
The Courage looked to be set to take the lead in the 50th minute when Lynn Williams took the ball off of the foot of a Chicago defender and ran at goal. Unfortunately, she took a heavy touch that allowed the Red Stars to regroup in defense and she failed to get a clean shoot off at Alyssa Naeher’s goal.
In the 57th minute Red Stars coach Rory Dames went to his bench and brought in Yuki Nagasato for Jennifer Hoy swapping his forwards to give his team a spark. Even with Nagasato in the game, Chicago struggled to do much other than try to counter and hold off North Carolina attacks as the half progressed.
In the 70th minute Alyssa Naher came out of her goal to smother a ball at the edge of the 18 yard box. She caught the ball, but her momentum carried her outside of the box where the referee determined she had handled the ball. The resulting free kick was cleared by Chicago but the moment perhaps showed the fatigue of the Red Star players as the game wore on.
Nearing extra time, it looked as though Chicago would continue to try to stay together defensively and wait out North Carolina. Paul Riley went to his bench in the 83rd minute to bring in Jess McDonald for Ashley Hatch in what would be a crucial decision.
Finally, North Carolina capitalized on all of their shots and corners. Jess McDonald knocked a corner into the path of Denise O’Sullivan who slammed her shot into the net in the 90th minute. Chicago would push everyone forward for the three minutes of injury time, but in the end the Red Stars would be eliminated from the NWSL playoffs for a fourth straight season and the Courage would return to the Championship under their new name.
North Carolina will look to win the double as they take on the Portland Thorns on Saturday in Orlando for the NWSL Championship game.