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NC Courage vs. Chicago Red Stars semifinal recap: A solid 2-0 win for the “home” team

Despite the hostile crowd, the Courage came away victorious

Jess McDonald outruns Julie Ertz to score the opening goal of the match.

The North Carolina Courage punched their ticket to a second-straight finals appearance by beating the Chicago Red Stars 2-0 on Tuesday night. An early goal from Jess McDonald broke Chicago’s pressure while a late goal from Sam Mewis iced the game. The Courage will face off against Portland Thorns FC on Saturday afternoon at 4:30 p.m. ET for the Championship.

This was definitely not the best performance from the Courage this year. The game started out with Chicago completely dominating. The first good shot of the game came when Chicago’s Yuki Nagasato collected a poor clearance and sent a rocket into the crossbar. The Courage probably should have been down by a goal in the third minute, but they were spared by the woodwork.

It took just a momentary break in pressure for the Courage to take the lead. After a turnover in the North Carolina half of the field, Crystal Dunn passed the ball up to Jess McDonald who turned on the jets and blew past Julie Ertz. With McDonald and Ertz neck and neck, both players stretched out to kick the ball, and they combined for a shot that blew past Chicago goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher and into the back of the net.

Four minutes later, in the ninth minute, a terrible turnover in the defensive third left Chicago striker Sam Kerr with the ball at her feet inside the box. She took a shot that beat goalkeeper Sabrina D’Angelo, but it fortuitously bounced off the left post and shot back across the face of goal. In the span of 10 minutes the Red Stars should have had two goals, but instead they were holding a one-goal deficit.

The Courage struggled for the first 25 minutes of the first half, but they were much improved over the next 20 minutes. As the half came to a close, the Courage had gained the upper hand and were having the better of the game.

The second half initially favored Chicago, but the game changed to favor the Courage much more quickly. There were certainly offensive chances for both sides, but nothing as dangerous as the two Chicago shots that found woodwork in the first ten minutes. The one thing that did happen over the course of the second half was the degradation of Jaelene Hinkle’s play. As the Courage appeared more likely to win, the boos from the crowd every time she touched the ball grew louder. This made her try to get off the ball as fast as she could, to the point that every single play from her was one touch. This affected her passing accuracy and the rhythm with her teammates.

As the game dragged on, it was clear that Chicago was running out of gas. After working desperately to score the equalizer for 80 minutes their legs were starting to give way. Then, Sam Mewis came in with the dagger. After a bizarre series of plays where the referee awarded two Chicago goal kicks that should have been corners and ignored the fact that Chicago defender Julie Ertz tackled McDonald in the attacking third, the young man was ready to help the Courage.

As Chicago gained possession, the referee turned to run down field away toward the Courage goal. Chicago midfielder Danielle Colaprico played the ball forward, but it hit the heel of the ref as he sprinted away. The ball bounced into the air, and Debinha was able to control it off her chest. She passed to McDonald, her cross went off the head of Ertz to Dunn, who sent the ball over to Mewis. Sam moved into open space and hit an absolute rocket of a shot from 25 yards that hit the left post and went into the goal. Just like that, in the 86th minute, the game was over.

The crowd, which had pretended to be neutral through the opening period of the match, was extremely displeased, but the damage had been done. Chicago mounted one more dangerous attack, but the fight was over. Defender Casey Short, who had been injured on and off all season, was completely out of steam as the Courage played with the ball in Chicago’s half for most of the remaining eight minutes.

There were a ton of problems with this match. Abby Erceg and Abby Dahlkemper showed very little cohesion with goalkeeper Sabrina D’Angelo and with one another. The team was dreadful for the first 25 minutes of the match despite scoring a goal. The second half was better, but it still left me shouting at the television when they made poor passes or refused to pass and instead dribbled into traffic. It’s comforting to know that we can still win, even if we aren’t playing our best soccer. Now we have three days to prepare for the final.