Tomorrow afternoon at Sahlen’s Stadium in Cary, NC, the North Carolina Courage will kick off for the final time in 2019. It has been a season full of ups and downs, but the team has persevered. Now they face their final challenge. The ultimate boss battle. The Chicago Red Stars.
The Courage are very familiar with the Red Stars. They’ve played 11 times in the last three seasons including two previous playoff matches. The current series record is 3W-3D-5L from the Courage perspective, and the 12th game will be pivotal in writing the history of both teams. If the Courage come out on top, it will prove that their lackluster regular season performances mean nothing. They will have knocked Chicago out of the playoffs three years running, and the team will secure their second NWSL title in a row. Pair that with the back-to-back-to-back NWSL Shield wins, and it will be tough for anyone to question the dominance of the Courage. If Chicago wins, they will hold a commanding overall lead in the series with six wins in twelve games. They will also dethrone the Courage as the best team in the league and carry an extra sense of purpose into the 2020 season. Head coach Rory Dames will cement his place as one of the greatest coaches in the league, and Chicago’s playoff curse will officially be lifted. To put it simply; there’s a lot riding on this game.
Chicago has all the pieces necessary to beat the Courage
There is a good reason for the success that Chicago has shown against the Courage. They are pure class from top to bottom and they have a number of players who truly excel at what they do. No team in the league rises to the occasion better than Chicago when they face the Courage.
Arguably the most important piece of the puzzle is superstar forward Sam Kerr. Rumored to be heading overseas for a seven-digit paycheck next season, Kerr is looking to cap off her illustrious NWSL career with a Championship win. She is the leading goalscorer in the league because she has blistering pace, phenomenal ball control, and great shot placement on the run. She isn’t the best tactician. She doesn’t often take players on with her dribbling skills, but her body control allows her to create space and embarrass defenders without too much fancy footwork. She constantly picks and probes at the back line, and her teammates are always looking to break her into open space. She is good enough to beat any two centerbacks and a goalkeeper on her worst day. The only problem is that Kerr doesn’t do a whole lot else. She presses high and tries to force bad plays out of the back, but she rarely moves off the front line.
Depending on how the lineup is drawn, Yuki Nagasato is either listed as a forward next to Kerr or a midfielder just behind her. Either way, she has become Kerr’s greatest asset and creation partner. Nagasato has a way of always finding Kerr while also putting herself in a position to take uncontested shots when six defenders flock to stop Kerr in the box. It’s not the flashiest of jobs, but Yuki pulls it off flawlessly, and she even received 8% of the MVP voting for her efforts. Kerr, on the other hand, received about 63% and won the award.
The next amazing Red Stars player is defensive midfielder Julie Ertz. Or maybe she is a centerback? Either way, Ertz is a game-changer. She became famous when she helped the USWNT win the 2015 Women’s World Cup as a CB, but then she helped the team win in 2019 as a DM. Last weekend against Portland Thorns FC she played as a CB with fellow USWNT star Morgan Brian taking up defensive midfield duties. No matter where she is on the field, though, she uses her size and aggression to bully players off the ball and control their motion. She is extremely adept at cutting out passes and making perfectly timed tackles. Her talents will be much better utilized in the midfield against the Courage, but I don’t know that the Red Stars can afford to play her there. Tierna Davidson, another member of the World Cup-winning squad, has already been declared out for the upcoming match, so they will probably want Ertz back there to secure the line.
Without turning this into a 10,000 word essay about why the Red Stars are amazing, it should be noted that they also have Casey Short, one of the best outside backs in the league, and Allyssa Naeher, who has grown into her game and always plays the Courage tough. There are definitely weak links in the Chicago armor, though. Sarah Gorden might not have the class to control the wings against the Courage, and Danielle Colaprico will struggle if she’s put into a defensive midfield role again this weekend. Whoever starts at CB in place of Davidson is also going to have a tough night. All around, though, the Red Stars are pretty well stacked.
Beating Chicago is very hard and very easy
If the Courage can do two things they will be all but guaranteed a win. They need to score easy shots and keep Kerr in check. Both of them sound super easy, but obviously it’s easier said than done.
On the Kerr front, Abby Erceg and Abby Dahlkemper need to drop deep whenever they think a long ball is coming. Catching Kerr offside is a fool’s errand. You might get her 9 times, but the 10th time you give up a goal. If you drop back and impede her progress, she isn’t prone to beating players while on the ball. Kerr will almost always hold up play and wait for support or pass back to a teammate when blocked away from goal. Limiting her solo looks is a perfect place to start.
No team in the league misses more sitters than the Courage. If Lynn Williams and Jess McDonald scored every one of their wide-open opportunities the Courage would be better than Olympique Lyonnais. The forwards have an uncanny ability to hit the ball over and around the net from three yards away. If they could just send those balls into the back of the net they would win this match in a landslide.
So that’s all. Just control the best striker in the world and score more goals. Why didn’t anyone else think of this?
Predicting the Courage Starting XI
Unless some crazy injury shows up, the starting lineup is set in stone. Williams and McDonald start at forward. Debnha and Crystal Dunn start at attacking mid. Sam Mewis and Denise O’Sullivan start at defensive mid. Heath O’Reilly and Jaelene Hinkle start at outside back. Erceg and Dahlkemper start in the middle of the back line, and Stephanie Labbe starts in goal. Lock it up, because that’s a championship winning lineup if there ever was one.
How to watch
The game will kick off at 3:30 p.m. ET from Sahlen’s Stadum in Cary, NC. The game will be broadcast on ESPN in the United States and on ESPN affiliates in other countries around the world. Tune in to see some of the best women’s players in the world square off in the final game of 2019.