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NC Courage playoff preview: Can the Chicago Red Stars slow down the best offense in league history?

The Courage scored a record-high 53 goals in 2018

Debhina brings a completely different style of play to the Courage.
Jeremy Reper/isiphotos.com

On Tuesday night the first-place North Carolina Courage will “host” the fourth-place Chicago Red Stars in the first round of the 2018 NWSL playoffs.

In 2014, Seattle Reign FC rolled over the league by scoring 50 goals while allowing just 20 goals against them. Behind Scottish national Kim Little, who just helped her country reach the 2019 Women’s World Cup, that Seattle squad made their way to the Championship Game before being upset by FC Kansas City. As the quality of the league improved and teams equalized, it seemed like that season would never be replicated. Then came the 2018 North Carolina Courage.

The 2018 Courage crushed all of the major records; scoring 53 goals, allowing 17 goals, winning 17 games, losing just once, and earning 57 points. Now, the Courage will try to become the first team in National Women’s Soccer League history to win the Shield and the Championship in the same season. Amazingly, none of the previous five regular season champions have been able to complete the task in the postseason. We already know that Portland Thorns FC will be playing in the Championship, but can the Chicago Red Stars slow down the juggernaut Courage offense?

Chicago’s defense is rounding into form

The Chicago defensive line has gone though a tumultuous season.

On March 25, Arin Gilliland, Samantha Johnson, Katie Naughton, and Taylor Comeau lined up together to face off in Chicago’s first match of the season against the Houston Dash. Regular starter Casey Short was injured, as was USWNT star Julie Ertz, but Ertz had been moved into the midfield during the 2017 season.

Over the next six months, Johnson and Comeau were traded. Ertz was reverted back to centerback around the midpoint of the season. Short returned to health and went back to starting on the left side of the defense. Ertz and Short both missed the final match of the season after picking up injuries with the USWNT, but head coach Rory Dames indicated that they should be available for the playoff contest on Tuesday.

The lineup of Short, Ertz, Naughton, and Gilliland is definitely a strong one, but how to they match up against the Courage?

Short is a world class defender. She is likely to start on the side with Jess McDonald, Crystal Dunn, and Merritt Mathias, assuming Paul Riley sticks with the 4-4-2 box. Short is capable of matching up with any of those three players 1-v-1, so look for the right side of the offense to bait Short toward the middle before slipping the ball outside to cross it into the middle. I don’t expect any of those three players to win many matchups when they are faced up against Short. She isn’t especially flashy, but she is quick and steady.

The opposite side has a slightly better chance. Gilliland is undoubtedly a talented defender, but she is a little looser than Short. She will be matched up against Debinha, Lynn Williams, and Jaelene Hinkle, each of whom bring a different set of skills. That will make her defensive job much more difficult, and I see more opportunities being generated on the left side of the pitch.

The two centerbacks are going to make things very difficult for the Courage in the middle of the field. Ertz is one of the most talented players in the world at getting her head to the ball, which will complicate designed corner and free kicks. The Courage are going to need to rely on their typical volume of chances if they want to earn a win here, because these two defenders are playing very well together.

Goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher has been a dominant force against the Courage in two of the three games they’ve played this season. In the first meeting, Naeher made 12 saves and nearly earned her team a 1-0 win before McCall Zerboni managed to sneak one past her in the 81st minute. The Courage crushed the Red Stars in their second meeting of the season with a 4-1 victory, but they were back to being frustrated in the final meeting with another 1-1 draw. The Courage were more efficient against the Red Stars as the year went on, but they generated only four shots on goal in the last meeting against Chicago, which was the only time they faced Short and Ertz this year.

The Courage are likely to succeed

There is no denying that Chicago has a good defense. Every player is individually one of the best in the league at their respective positions, but that just hasn’t mattered this year.

The truth is that the Courage haven’t broken scoring records by being clinical. According to the NWSL website, the Courage and Red Stars are first and second in shots and shots on goal respectively. The Courage created 176 SoG, good for 7.3 per game. Chicago created 123 SoG or 5.1 per game. The Courage had 15.9 shots per game while Chicago had 11.2. Those extra shots and shots on target turned into 15 more goals over the course of the season. The Courage take shots and wait for the defense to make a poor clear before pouncing. The Courage aren’t scared of scoring ugly goals.

The big difference between 2017 and 2018 is that the Courage have been able to rally for wins and draws. In 2017, the Courage relied heavily on getting ahead and playing defense to win. When they went down they rarely came back. The Courage trailed in seven matches this season. They lost once, drew four times, and won twice. Excepting the one 0-0 draw with Utah, the Courage took the lead in 16 games. The only game they failed to win after scoring first was the 1-1 draw against Chicago on August 10th.

You may read through my descriptions of the Chicago defense and think, “Wow! This defense is phenomenal! How can he say that the Courage will win after writing that?”

Just like Browns fans always talk themselves into believing that their off-season changes have fixed the fact that they are the Browns, it’s possible to extol the virtues of someone without expecting them to be the best. The Chicago defense is extremely good, but the Courage offense is league-breaking.

Lynn Williams has the straight-line speed and positioning to beat any defender. She scored 14 goals this season in 21 appearances.

Jess McDonald has taken care of her body this season, and she has turned into an assist machine. Her 8 assists are top in the league.

Crystal Dunn is a dynamic player than can blow by you on offense while being a good enough defender to start for the USWNT at that position.

Debinha has excellent technical ability, can score from anywhere, and never gives up on the ball. She has completely bought into Paul Riley’s system.

And those are just the four offensive players. There are six other players that have scored goals for the Courage this season. Merritt Mathias comes out of nowhere to hit long-range rockets. Sam Mewis pushes up in the middle of the park and surprises goalkeepers with her low shot. Defender Abby Erceg comes up on free kicks and uses her height to score headers. You can shut one or two or three different players down and still have too many weapons to counter. This is the best women’s soccer club in the world, and while it’s always possible that they will lose on Tuesday, I wouldn’t bet against them.