The NC Courage have started the 2018 NWSL season to near perfection as they head into their seventh match of the year undefeated. On Sunday at 3:00 pm ET the first-place Courage will host the second-place Chicago Red Stars with the goal of extending their seven-point lead over the rest of the league. The Courage will look to their stifling defense that has allowed a league-best four goals against this season as well as the offense that has generated more goals (11) and shots-on-goal (37) than any other team in the league.
The Red Stars were a thorn in the side of the Courage in 2017 as Chicago bested the team in all three regular season meetings. Revenge was served when the Courage defeated the Red Stars 1-0 in the playoffs. The lone goal in that match was scored in the 89th minute when Denise O’Sullivan took a shot that deflected through the legs of Chicago midfielder Julie Ertz and found its way into the back of the net. That game-winning goal is O’Sullivan’s only goal in her Courage career, but it was the most important goal of the season.
A tough trip for the Red Stars
The Red Stars have had a roller coaster of a season so far. On draft day, Chicago took part in the three-team trade that would send forward Christen Press to Houston, Carli Lloyd to Sky Blue FC and bring 2017 NWSL MVP Sam Kerr to Chicago. This trade was a definite upgrade for Chicago, but Kerr was away on international duty for the first five games of the season. In the month leading up to opening day, Julie Ertz, Casey Short and Vanessa DiBernardo all suffered significant injuries that would keep them off the pitch for extended periods of time. With all of this turmoil, expectations were low heading into the first part of the season.
Despite the missing pieces the Red Stars came out strong. They quickly secured second place in the standings without four of their starting players while riding the offensive performances of Taylor Comeau, Alyssa Mautz, and April NWSL Player of the Month Sofia Huerta to a 2W-2D-1L record through the first five matches of the season. With Ertz on the mend and Kerr back from WWC Qualifying it seemed like Chicago was ready to push for the top spot in the league.
The next two games didn’t go quite to script. In Kerr’s first full match back with the team they played to a 1-1 draw on the road in Washington against the Spirit. Ertz also made her debut as a substitute, but they were unable to break down the Spirit defense a second time as Washington goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe made a litany of beautiful saves to earn her team a point. After the disappointing road showing, Chicago played host to the Orlando Pride in a mid-week showdown. With Ertz out for the full match, the Red Stars were soundly beaten 2-0 despite playing Orlando evenly throughout the match. The offense just wasn’t clicking despite their ability to possess the ball in the midfield.
On Sunday the Red Stars will try to replicate the formula that helped them win two of their first four games. Chicago has most of its strength in the midfield and forward positions, so it will be important for them to come out and put the Courage down early. When the Courage system breaks down it can be hard for the team to get back into a rhythm. Thus far in 2018 the Red Stars have been efficient on limited chances, which is good because the Courage have the stingiest defense in the league. On the defensive end, the Red Stars will try to slow down the Courage attack by holding a high line and making life uncomfortable for Lynn Williams and Jess McDonald. Controlling the Courage offense is nearly impossible at this point in the season, but if the Red Stars can hold strong and get a little bit of luck they could hold the Courage off the scoreboard.
Making the most of a good situation
The Courage are already the most fit team in the league. In their first three home matches the team secured a 1-0 victory thanks to a late goal, but those goals were not luck or coincidence, they were planned. The philosophy of this North Carolina team is to run the other team into the ground and then break them apart, and that task will be easier with Chicago having played already on Wednesday. Chicago already looked tired in their 2-0 loss to Orlando, and the Courage should be able to capitalize on their fitness advantage in this match.
Head coach Paul Riley has stuck with a 4-4-2 lineup all season and there is no reason to believe that will change now. Midfielder Sam Mewis is coming back to game form, but it is unlikely that she is ready for a starting role at this point in the season. While this was not Riley’s system last season, I think he is going to let the lineup ride and hope that they can add a fifth clean sheet to the season tally.
This lineup represents no change from last weekend, but that doesn’t mean changes aren’t possible. Midfielder Kristen Hamilton is listed as questionable on the injury report with an illness. That designation can mean anything from a minor cold to major sickness, so we won’t know until game day whether or not she will be available. If she were to be absent we would probably see Mewis or Speck starting instead. Debinha also has the possibility to start if O’Sullivan isn’t quite fit, but given that she played a game for the Courage, flew to Ireland and played two games for her country, and then flew back to play three times in a week for the Courage I don’t see her needing a rest.
The Red Stars are probably the most dangerous team that the Courage have faced to this point in the season, but if they play their game and avoid dumb mistakes then the Courage should have no problem taking their winning streak into the middle-third of the season.
How to watch
Kickoff at 3:00 pm ET at Sahlen’s Stadium in Cary, NC. The game will be broadcast on go90.com.