The North Carolina Courage have been the best team in the National Women’s Soccer League all three years that they have participated. After inheriting the Western New York Flash, the surprise winners of the 2016 NWSL Championship game, the Courage have built what feels like an unstoppable force. They have played 72 games, securing 48 wins and 11 draws while suffering just 13 losses. No other team in the league has scored more points (155) than the Courage since 2017.
But that doesn’t mean the Courage are infallible. They lost the 2017 Championship match against Portland Thorns FC after losing Debinha in the semifinal and Taylor Smith and Kristen Hamilton in the final. Their biggest challenge from year-to-year has been finding a way to beat the Chicago Red Stars.
Chicago owns North Carolina in the regular season
The North Carolina Courage are awful when facing the Chicago Red Stars.
It’s really that simple. They’ve faced off in nine regular season matches over the last three seasons. The Courage won one of those games, drew three, and lost the other five. The Courage have only lost 13 games in their regular season history, but Chicago owns 5 of them.
Of those 13 losses, 10 have been by a single goal. The other three games were two-goal deficits. May 13th of 2017; Orlando 3, NC 1. May 21st of 2017; Chicago 3, NC 1. May 12th of 2019; Chicago 3, NC 1.
The Courage have scored 155 of a possible 216 points in league play, but they’ve only earned 6 of 27 from the Red Stars. No other team comes anywhere close to that mark. How crazy is that? Chicago has taken 21 of the 61 points that the Courage have dropped since joining the league. This one team represents more than a third of the total points that the Courage have lost.
Chicago is also the only team in the league with a positive goal differential against the Courage. They have scored 17 goals while allowing North Carolina to score 13 in their regular season matches. Neither team has been shut out in any of the regular season meetings.
NC Courage Results: 2017-2019
As you can see, the Courage have a very good record against every team except for the one that they face off against on Sunday. On average, the Courage have beaten the Houston Dash by 2.38 goals, but they have lost to Chicago by 0.44 goals.
The secret to Chicago’s success
We’ve pretty well established that the Red Stars are North Carolina’s Achilles’ heel. Why does Chicago match up so well with the Courage?
For my money there are two main factors. The first is that they consistently have a lone striker available who can break down the Courage backline all alone. First it was Christen Press, now it’s Sam Kerr. Kerr is easily the best in the league, if not the world, at creating her own space, embarrassing defenders, and then scoring a gut-wrenching goal. In most cases, she is in an impossible position where no other player could score, but she somehow beats the entire defense and then takes a perfect shot with ease.
In the gif, Kerr is corralled by Abby Erceg after the pass slips by Abby Dahlkemper, but she is still able to score. This ability allows the Red Stars to sit back and bunker with 6 or 7 players while still creating offensive pressure on the Courage. No other team in the league has that ability because no other player in the league has that ability.
The Red Stars also have the best back-six in the NWSL. Between USWNT goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, defenders Casey Short and Tierna Davidson, and defensive midfielder/center-back Julie Ertz, this lineup is stacked on the back end. With all that talent and the ability to sit back and concentrate on foiling attacks, Chicago has been able to consistently stifle and frustrate the Courage. Even when they do find space, Naeher always seems to do her best Hope Solo impression against North Carolina. The strong defense has never kept a clean sheet against the Courage, but they can usually do enough to get a win.
Playoff results are the silver lining
All of this seems to indicate that the Courage have no chance on Sunday. We might as well pack up the bags and accept our loss, but North Carolina has beaten Chicago in both of their playoff meetings so far.
Back in 2017, after losing three times during the regular season, the Courage played a tough home playoff match against the 4th-seeded Red Stars. The clock ran until the 89th minute before newcomer Denise O’Sullivan marked her place in history by scoring a low shot from the top of the box. It is still Sully’s only goal in a Courage uniform, but it was easily the most important goal of the 2017 season. The 1-0 win would set a precedent for shutting out the Red Stars in the playoffs.
The Courage once again scored the top seed in 2018, and they matched up for a second time against the 4th-ranked Red Stars. The game was much less harrowing, although the lead up was quite unusual. Instead of getting a home playoff game for the second year in a row, Hurricane Florence forced the game to be moved to Portland. The Courage played on Tuesday and played a solid 90 minutes against the dangerous Red Stars. An opening goal in the 5th minute by Jessica McDonald was followed up by an evenly matched 80 minutes in the middle of the match. It wasn’t until Sam Mewis scored in the 86th minute that the Courage really sealed the deal, and the 2-0 win would be the second-straight season that the Courage shut out the Red Stars in the playoffs.
So which type of game are we going to see? Will the Courage be able to hold Chicago off the scoreboard, or will Sam Kerr have her way with the NC defense?