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Match Preview: North Carolina Courage vs Chicago Red Stars

The title defense finally begins

Crystal Dunn played well against Chicago in 2018
Andy Mead/isiphotos.com

203 days. On Saturday evening at 7:00 p.m. ET when the North Carolina Courage and Chicago Red Stars kick off in the opening match of the 2019 NWSL Regular Season it will have been 203 days, almost to the minute, since the Courage had been on a soccer field playing in a game that counted. It’s about damn time.

If you’re anything like me you've been anxiously awaiting this game for more than half a year. North Carolina is coming off the greatest season in the history of the league and is ready to begin their title defense against one of the best teams in the league. Chicago has an excellent roster from top to bottom and figures to be tough competition in the opening match. Both teams are extremely strong in all phases of the game and match up well with one another.

Starting the season healthy and whole

If you have been following the NWSL offseason then you have also heard the endless talk of how teams will deal with missing internationals during the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup. You might have heard the topic talked about so much that you’d expect for half of the roster to be missing, but that’s not the case. Quite to the contrary, the roster is healthier and more complete than it has been in years.

Unless there has been an unannounced injury in training this week, we should have the opportunity to see Paul Riley’s preferred starting lineup to open the season. In goal we should get our first look at Stephanie Labbé in a Courage uniform during league play. The addition of Labbé, who is Canada’s starting goalkeeper, brings a new level of excellence to the goal box. North Carolina already set the record for fewest goals allowed in an NWSL season last year. That record breaking defense features Jaelene Hinkle at left back, Abby Dahlkemper and Abby Erceg at center back, and Merritt Mathias at right back. Those four have a full year of experience together, and they are arguably the best group in the league. On the offensive side of the ball, Hinkle and Dahlkemper are long pass experts, while Mathias has the ability to hit rocket shots from the outside, and Erceg seems to get one or two goals each season with her head.

The Courage spent all last season perfecting the box midfield with two players in the 6 and two in the 10. Sam Mewis and McCall Zerboni project to start as the defensive midfielders protecting the defensive line and linking with the offense. They are both extremely tough, physical players who are adept at disrupting build up play from opponents. The attacking midfielders will probably be Brazilian international Debinha and Crystal Dunn. Debinha was the opening weekend hero last year when she sent an absolute rocket of a shot into the right upper 90 of the goal from the top of the box. That goal in the 70th minute was the lone goal in a 1-0 opening day win for the Courage. Dunn is a dynamic play-maker with blistering speed and excellent finesse. Her addition vaulted the Courage from a very good team in 2017 to a phenomenal team in 2018.

The forward pairing of Lynn Williams and Jess McDonald have been dominating the NWSL for three straight years. They have played together in the Championship game three years running at the top of the formation for head coach Paul Riley, and they have racked up an absolutely insane 58 goals and 35 assists in the regular season since teaming up in 2016. McDonald was named the MVP of the 2018 Championship game.

But Chicago is probably the stiffest competition

There are a lot of great teams in the NWSL. I would be willing to bet my last dollar that no women’s league in the world has more talent from the top to the bottom of the league, but this opening match is a battle of titans.

Chicago has USWNT starting goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher in net, and she has been one of the toughest keepers in the league for the Courage to score against over the last two seasons. Chicago struggled defensively at times last season, but they won the 2019 NWSL College Draft when they grabbed CB Tierna Davidson with the first-overall selection. Rookies tend to struggle in their opening NWSL seasons, but that process might not apply to Davidson who has already played 19 games for the USWNT before playing her first game as a pro.

It’s hard for me to decide whether the midfield or forwards are better for the Red Stars. On the one hand they feature striker Sam Kerr. Kerr has won the NWSL Golden Boot two years running and is the all-time leader in NWSL regular season goals. She is capable of making defenders and goalkeepers look foolish with her speed and technique. She pairs well with fellow forward Yuki Nagasato, and they can make things happen all by themselves against any back line. The Chicago midfield is led by captain and USWNT star Julie Ertz. After winning the World Cup as a center back, Ertz has transitioned into a holding midfield role for her club and country with great success. She will anchor the Red Stars midfield with Danielle Colaprico and Vanessa DiBernardo expected to play in more attacking roles. All three players are extremely comfortable with one another and have excellent offensive and defensive capabilities.

The first of 24 regular season starting lineup predictions

My favorite part of this is that I get to be wrong so very often. We posted a projected starting lineup in our 2019 NC Courage preview article, and I’m going to stick with that.

For substitutions, I think Denise O’Sullivan, Heather O’Reilly, and Kristen Hamilton will be subbed on between the 70th and 85th minutes. If things are going well the subs will come a little earlier, and if things are close they will come a little later.

The game will kick off at 7:00 p.m. ET at Sahlen’s Stadium in Cary, NC. The games are being broadcast by Yahoo! Sports this season.

Get. Hype.