The North Carolina Courage took the league by storm in 2018. They broke six league records on their way to a second-consecutive NWSL Shield, and now they set their sights on a league championship. History is stacked against them. None of the previous five shield-winning teams were able to secure a win in the Final.
The Courage were supposed to host the Chicago Red Stars at Sahlen’s Stadium for the second year in a row, but Hurricane Florence threw a wrench in those plans. Instead of playing at home on Sunday, the Courage will “host” the Red Stars on Tuesday night at 9:08 p.m. ET at Providence Park in Portland, OR. The winner will stay in Portland to spend three days preparing for the Final. The loser will go home.
It’s impossible to overstate how amazing the regular season was for the Courage. They had both the best offense and best defense in NWSL history. They won more games and earned more points than any team in league history, and they lost just one game all year. The playoffs are a whole new beast.
The Red Stars are a tough matchup
There are a lot of great teams in the NWSL, but Chicago matches up particularly well against the Courage.
On offense, Sam Kerr won the Golden Boot Award for the second consecutive season after scoring 16 goals in 19 games. Her connection with Yuki Nagasato is dangerous, and the Courage will need to keep excellent defensive form to hold back the Chicago offense.
On defense, Julie Ertz is one of the best CBs in the league, and fellow USWNT defender Casey Short is also world class. Backing up the formidable defensive line is USWNT starting goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher. Naeher has been a thorn for the Courage all season.
In their three meetings this year, the Courage and Red Stars played to two 1-1 draws, and North Carolina won the middle meeting 4-1. Last year, Chicago won all three of the regular season meetings between the team before losing in a dramatic 1-0 playoff game. Chicago is trying to make their first trip to the Championship Game after getting knocked out in the semifinal round each of the last three seasons.
The Courage have only earned a clean sheet in one of their seven meetings with the Red Stars.
North Carolina lineup and gameplan
The 2018 season has been like a dream for the Courage. They did a lot of winning, a lot of scoring, and they had a lot of fun. They beat PSG and Lyon to win the inaugural ICC Women’s Tournament, and now they are two games away from completing the NWSL double.
We shouldn’t expect any lineup changes here. Just the normal 4-4-2 box, although head coach Paul Riley is willing to change it up if necessary.
Unless someone picked up an injury, that is almost guaranteed to be the lineup. It’s terrible that McCall Zerboni will be unavailable, but this is still the best squad in the league.
Now, I don’t think the Courage will blank the Red Stars. With all of their offensive power, I thin Chicago can probably find their way to a goal. The Courage definitely have the skill to score twice, but actually making it happen is a different matter. If the game goes to extra time I think the Courage are still favored to win.
The Courage have one huge, massive, rarely-discussed weakness. Late game free kicks.
For whatever reason, the Courage have been absolutely awful about committing fouls in their defensive third at the very end of matches. How prevalent is this problem? The Courage conceded 17 goals in 2018. Of those 17, 9 of them were the direct result of a corner or free kick. An additional one goal was due to a 93rd minute PK conceded by North Carolina. 10 out of 17 goals were directly caused by a foul or corner kick.
Of those 10 goals, 8 took place in the second half. On four different occasions, the free kick goal occurred after the 88th minute. That includes the game-winning goal scored by Brittany Ratcliffe in the 94th minute after a poor set piece clearance. If that ball had been cleared more efficiently the Courage might have finished 2018 undefeated.
It’s a relatively small chink in the armor, but it’s there. Knowing about it will just keep me on the edge of my seat until the final whistle blows.