On Wednesday night the North Carolina Courage booked their ticket to the NWSL playoffs and remain in first place in the league. Despite having just played 19 games, the Courage are five points clear of the Portland Thorns and 10 ahead of the Chicago Red Stars. The team will have a chance to add to that lead when the visit the Windy Suburb on Sunday afternoon.
The match Wednesday featured a back and forth first half with the Washington Spirit pull ahead early thanks to an 8th minute goal from Estefania Banini. The teams nearly went into the locker rooms with Washington ahead, but Sam Mewis headed a ball past keeper Didi Haracic just before the half ended. North Carolina adjusted well for the second 45 as Jess McDonald earned a brace and doubled her goals total for the season. Her first goal found the net off of a free kick from Jalene Hinkle that she headed home for a 2-1 lead in the 61st minute. It took just another five minutes for her second goal when Sam Mewis played a ball to Lynn Williams. The Courage forward passed the ball square to McDonald who neatly slid her shot past the Haracic.
The goal was a throwback to last season when Williams and McDonald combined to be the most feared forward combo in the league. So far this season, the two haven’t had the same chemistry due to a combination of injuries, national team callups, and the predilection of manager Paul Riley. The Spirit would find the net again in the second half in the 73rd minute when Katelyn Rowland came out of her goal to meet a charging Francisca Ordega. She failed to beat the Spirit midfielder to the ball and Ordega managed a cross that forward Cheyna Williams knocked into the open net. The 3-2 scoreline would hold though and the Courage prevailed.
A challenging match on short rest
After spending much of the season looking like they would challenge for the NWSL Shield, the Chicago Red Stars have struggled mightily of late. The team has just two wins in its last eight games with three losses and three draws over that span. They currently sit third in the table, even on points with the Orlando Pride and only three points ahead of Sky Blue FC.
This is about as close to a must win game as it gets for Chicago. While a loss won’t put them out of the playoffs, they only have four more games on the season and this will be their last home match of the season. Trying to clinch a playoff spot will be difficult enough without having to dig themselves out of a hole on the road. For the Couarge, the game represents a chance to clinch a home field semi-final playoff game.
In an effort to reinforce their roster, the Red Stars traded the Washington Spirit for Kristy Mewis and then sent Mewis to Houston for Morgan Brian after just one game. While the holding midfielder has had injury problems as of late, if she’s healthy should should help resolve the defensive issues that have troubled the Red Stars over their rough patch of games. Brian is one of, if not the, best defensive midfielders in the league and her holding play along with the ability to shield the defense should stabilize the Red Stars leaky backline.
In the attack, the Red Stars have been inconsistent all year. While they haven’t been held scoreless often, they also have the fewest goals scored of the four teams in the playoff spots currently. They needed a late winner against a weak Washington Spirit defense last weekend and haven’t looked like the explosive team they were at the beginning of the season. The Red Stars will more than likely need to find the net more than once this weekend as the Courage have only been held scoreless once in the last seven games. With their leaky defense, the Chicago attack will need to step up if they hope to control their own fate as the playoffs approach.
As far as what to expect from the Courage in this game, it is difficult to say. On one hand, the team just played mid-week, clinched a playoff spot, and might look to get some rest before the final four games of the season. On the other, they have a chance to knock Chicago down further in the standings. While no team that makes the playoffs will be an easy opponent, the Red Stars are a dangerous team and if they manage to get Brian worked into their lineup could be a handfull in a first round matchup against the Courage down the line.
If anyone can get in coach Paul Riley’s head, they are a master of psychology and probably soccer in general. I am neither of those things and was a bit off in my guess last week. The main thing I missed was Jess McDonald playing as an attacking midfielder and Kristen Hamilton out on the wing.
Here’s what I think for this week:
I’m probably wrong, but there’s going to be rotation. Witteman might start somewhere along the back line and perhaps Stephanie Ochs gets a start in place of Erceg or Dahlkemper. Rowland might not even be a sure thing with newly acquired keeper Caroline Stanley getting a look with short rest between games.
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