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NC Courage semifinal preview: The best defense in NWSL history against the best striker in the world

Sam Kerr is an unstoppable force

The Courage were missing two key defenders for the ICC Tournament, but that didn’t stop their greatness.
Jonathan Wiley

This is a two-part series. Tomorrow we will take a look at the matchup between the Courage offense and the Chicago defense.

The top-seeded North Carolina Courage are all set to take on the Chicago Red Stars on Tuesday at 9:00 p.m. ET in Portland, OR for their “home” semifinal match. The Courage rolled through the 2018 National Women’s Soccer League regular season. They broke a slew of league records, including most points, most wins, and most goals in a season, but behind that record-breaking offense was an even more impressive defense.

Led by captain Abby Erceg, the New Zealand international who is lovingly called Kiwi by her teammates, North Carolina crushed the record for fewest goals allowed in a season. Nailing down the previous record was a bit complicated. Portland Thorns FC had allowed 19 goals in a 20-game season, but there was a separate record shared by multiple teams of 20 goals allowed in a 24-game season. Fortunately, the Courage simplified things by beating both of those records as they allowed just 17 goals in 24 games this year.

The more impressive feat from this team came at the International Champions Cup Women’s Tournament at the end of July. The Courage held Paris Saint-Germain to one goal before changing their formation and shutting out Olympique Lyonnais, the best women’s soccer club in Europe, in their amazing 1-0 win in the final. That performance was accomplished despite Abby Dahlkemper and Merritt Mathias missing the tournament due to international duty. In the last 18 months, Lyon has only been shut out four times; twice by PSG, once by Manchester City, and once by the Courage. They have only suffered three defeats in that time, once to each of those teams.

How have the Courage become the best?

The 2016 Western New York Flash won the Championship with a lineup that featured Abby Dahlkemper, Abby Erceg, Jaelene Hinkle, and Taylor Smith off the bench. If that sounds familiar, Courage fans, it should, but you probably wouldn’t recognize their play on the field. Erceg was playing as a defensive midfielder and Smith was coming on as a sub in the midfield. Youth, inexperience, and lack of cohesion led to that defense allowing 26 goals in 20 games. Even though they would go on to win the title in penalty kicks over the Washington Spirit, their style was more about outrunning other teams than shutting them down. They allowed three goals in their semifinal match against Portland that year, but they scored four to advance.

Then came 2017: the squad was moved to North Carolina and re-branded as the Courage. With the same four players starting on the back line, now with an extra year of experience under their belts, the team made it back to the championship. This time, it wasn’t so much the strength of the offense, but the strength of the defense that carried them there. Don’t get me wrong, the offense was still good, but their total of 38 goals scored was in the middle of the pack, while their 21 goals against in 24 games was nearly a league record. They played two tough playoff matches that year; a 1-0 win over Chicago and a 1-0 loss to Portland.

What had changed from 2016 to 2017? First, age and experience. Dahlkemper, Smith, and Hinkle, who were all born in 1993, were just starting their professional careers. An extra year of experience and playing together is going to make a big difference early in their careers. They also had a better chance to build cohesion. Starting the same four defenders two years in a row is a major advantage over most of the league. Second, the Courage changed their tactics. In 2017, the team started pressing with their forwards and midfielders, playing to their physical strengths off the ball. When the defense starts all the way in the attacking third, there is a lot less solid buildup from opponents, and it eases the work required from the defense.

Then 2018 came around. The Courage traded one of their defenders, Smith, in a package deal for Crystal Dunn. The addition of Dunn was an extremely positive one, but there were worries about how to replace Smith, who had become a solid member of the USWNT due to her strong 2017 performance with the Courage. North Carolina drafted and traded for a long list of defenders: Julie King, Allysha Chapman, Ryan Williams, Carlin Hudson, Morgan Reid, and Kaleigh Kurtz were all added to the team, but the eventual starter was former Seattle Reign FC player Merritt Mathias. King is still recovering from an ankle injury and Chapman was traded to Houston for a first-round pick, but each of the other players have played significant roles for the Courage this year.

Mathias fit perfectly into the position vacated by Smith. She earned the respect of her teammates quickly, and she has a physical presence that was widely known across the league. She managed to tone down her overt aggression for the Courage, and she even proved to be an asset on offense where she scored three absolute bangers of goals this year. With the new pieces, including the late addition of Heather O’Reilly who can play anywhere on the pitch, the Courage were able to build on their 2017 defensive performance. The transition to the box-midfield system with two defensive-midfielders has also allowed Mathias and Hinkle to drive further up the field without hanging Erceg and Dahlkemper out to dry. In combination, this balance of changes and constancy have led to this amazing season.

But the Courage do have a weakness...

Sam Kerr is an unstoppable, goal scoring machine

As long as you don’t ask FIFA, international coaches, or international captains, - yes, I’m calling out the absurd fact that Kerr is not on the final list for Best FIFA Women’s Player - anyone else would tell you that Sam Kerr has been the best women’s soccer player in the world from 2017 to 2018. She scored 17 goals in the 2017 NWSL season, 13 goals in the 2017/18 Australian W-League season, and then 16 goals in the 2018 NWSL season. She earned the Golden Boot Award for each of those three performances despite missing significant time.

During the 2018 NWSL College Draft, Kerr was traded to Chicago in a three-team trade that sent Carli Lloyd to Sky Blue FC and Christen Press to the Houston Dash. This was a significant upgrade to a Chicago team that was already extremely good. The forces that be colluded against the Red Stars, though, and they would start the 2018 NWSL season missing a large portion of their starting lineup. As they regained players and made a few more trades, Chicago turned into one of the most dominant teams in the league, led by the scoring prowess of Kerr.

Kerr has been particularly dangerous against the Courage. In 2017 she scored the lone goal in a 1-0 win by Sky Blue over the Courage. Later that year, she assisted on the game-tying goal that prevented the Courage from clinching the NWSL Shield in a 1-1 draw.

This season has been equally frustrating. Kerr scored the only goal for Chicago in BOTH of the 1-1 draws this season, and she even sprained goalkeeper Sabrina D’Angelo’s ankle with a shot in the draw in May. D’Angelo wouldn’t be back on the pitch until the ICC Tournament.

There is no way to stop Kerr, but you can slow her down. She is absolutely deadly when she is able to play right along the back line. Her speed, the discipline of her runs, and her technical ability on the ball make her a nightmare for defenses, but she can be countered. When they have been successful at stopping Kerr, the Courage have let Erceg and Dahlkemper sit deeper than normal.

The goal isn’t to catch Kerr offside, it’s to make sure that you keep a body between her and the goal. You might be successful nine out of ten times with the offside trap, but you leave the goalie out to dry on that tenth chance. By allowing Erceg and Dahlkemper to prevent her space on the ball you take out the most dangerous parts of Kerr’s game and you force her to wait until the rest of the Chicago squad catches up to her. She is still dangerous passing the ball, but it’s always better for force someone other than the best striker in women’s football to take the shot.

Kerr will get her shots and will probably score a goal. She’s scored 16 goals in 19 games, so the odds are definitely on her side. All you can do is make it as hard as possible for her, and watching a matchup between a historically good defense and the best striker in the world, well, it just doesn’t get any better than that.

Note: A previous version of this article mischaracterized the formation of the 2016 WNY Flash.