On Sunday afternoon, the North Carolina Courage will kick off against the Chicago Red Stars with their USWNT players back for the first time since April. A lot of things have happened since then. The team lost consecutive games for the first time since 2017, the team went winless through four games in a row for the first time in team history, and Kristen Hamilton scored her first career hat trick and then scored four goals in a game. And somehow, the Courage started week 14 in first place. On Wednesday at the press conference, head coach Paul Riley said that he’d rather be five to six points out of first place at this point in the season, but here at Dirty South Soccer we’re pretty happy with being in first place. We’ve gotten used to it.
Chicago regains some much-needed talent
The Chicago Red Stars were supposed to be one of the better teams while the best players in the league were off at the Women’s World Cup, but instead they completely fell apart. Their dominant midfield, a feature of the team over the last four years, became very unproductive. Offensively, Chicago was incapable of scoring goals or creating good chances. Defensively they were fine, but without midfield and offensive production they still weren’t winning games. If only we were playing against that version of the Red Stars this week.
Chicago has four players returning from the World Cup winning USWNT. In goal, Alyssa Naeher is a major upgrade over Emily Boyd, and she has been a thorn in the side of the Courage every time they’ve faced off. She made five saves in the 1-1 draw in the season opener. It takes a well-placed shot to score against Naeher. There is no reason to believe that Naeher won’t be starting this match.
Then there’s defender Tierna Davidson. While she didn’t get much run at the World Cup, Davidson was the first pick in the 2019 NWSL College Draft because she is one of the most prominent rising defensive stars in the United States. Her centerback play can occasionally include some rookie mistakes, but she has an extremely high ceiling and a lot of technical ability. With so few game minutes over the last six weeks, we might not see Davidson starting in this match.
Then there are the two returning midfielders. Morgan Brian, who didn’t play much at the World Cup, supposedly came back with a little knock and doesn’t seem likely to be match-fit this weekend. Depending on the severity of her injury she might play a few minutes late in the match or not at all. Superstar Julie Ertz is on the opposite end of the spectrum. She played a ton at the World Cup and is also coming back a little banged up. Chicago head coach Rory Dames is committed to keeping his players healthy, but I think if Ertz can play she will be on the pitch. I’d be shocked if she doesn’t at least sub on later in the match, but it feels like a player of her competitive drive and ability will probably start. If she is able to play, Ertz will go a long way towards fixing the problems that Chicago has been having in the midfield. She adds such a tough, physical presence that wasn’t evident over the last few weeks for the Red Stars.
Oh, then there’s Sam Kerr. Kerr has played against the Courage in five regular season games with the Red Stars, and she’s scored five goals spaced out across four games. That’s a pretty terrible track record for the Courage defense. She just beats us. It feels like we do a better job of containing Kerr when we drop deep against her instead of trying to catch her offside. Other than Kerr, the Chicago offense has been paltry over the last month. Michele Vasconcelos, who was looking like a major part of Chicago’s offensive plans, is out for the season with a ruptured ACL, and there isn’t a whole lot of forward-thinking talent that can fill the gaps. Of course, when you have Sam Kerr you don’t really need anyone else. Shutting her down is the top priority for our defense.
How do you fit this much talent into one lineup?
Chicago might be getting a lot of their talent back, but I don’t think any team is set to gain more than the Courage. Abby Dahlkemper is one of the best centerbacks in the world, and she is a big upgrade over Kaleigh Kurtz on the back line. It’s hard to overstate how dangerous the pinpoint long passing skills of Dahlkemper really are, and I think that she is almost guaranteed to get the start and play all match.
Then there’s Sam Mewis. For the USWNT, Mewis was asked to play a more attacking role in the midfield, but for the Courage she plays further back and builds the attack. The Courage will be replacing Cari Roccaro with Sam Mewis...and that’s just not fair for the rest of the league. Going from a serviceable bench player to a world-class playmaker will be one of the biggest replacements in the league. Mewis has deceptive speed, and there are times when she holds the ball up, checks for an outlet pass to the right and the left drawing the midfielders out wide like a quarterback looking off a safety, and she just blows past everyone and creates a numerical advantage for the Courage. When you’re watching the game on Sunday wait for this moment. It’ll happen two or three times and completely disrupts the opposing defense. I think Mewis will start and play about 60 minutes.
If that wasn’t enough, the Courage are also getting back Crystal Dunn. She might be a defender for her country, but she’s one of the best attacking midfielders in the league for North Carolina. Dunn does everything on the field for the Courage, and she has turned into a capable passer in addition to her well-known goal scoring prowess. Dunn is listed as questionable on the injury report, and I don’t get the impression that she is ready to start the match this weekend. Obviously, slotting her into the lineup over Denise O’Sullivan is a pretty straight-forward upgrade, but she played a lot of tough minutes at the World Cup and might need a few games to get 90-minutes fit.
The final Courage addition is Jess McDonald. It’s hard to quantify just what McDonald brings to the team. There really isn’t a comparable player in the league. She is a huge, imposing forward who can score equally well with her head or feet. Oh, and she was the MVP of last year’s championship game. It’s amazing that she is our least game-changing addition, but that’s just the nature of this roster. It’s unbelievably stacked, and I don’t know how Riley will decide whether to bench Kristen Hamilton or Lynn Williams in favor of McDonald. After playing very limited minutes at the World Cup, I’m not sure how fit she will be. She definitely won’t be getting 90 minutes in her return, but somewhere between 30 and 60 minutes seems guaranteed.
This lineup assumes that both Hamilton and McDonald, both of whom are listed as questionable, are fit to play at least 60 minutes. Mewis would probably be subbed off for O’Sullivan, McDonald would make way for Leah Pruitt, and Hamilton would go off for Lauren Milliet.
This game has one extra layer of importance for the Courage. This will be the last game of the regular season against the Red Stars, and they currently hold the tiebreaker over us. We’ve played to a 1-1 draw and a 3-1 loss, so it’s pretty important that we score at least three goals and win by at least two to regain the tie breaking advantage.
How to watch
The Chicago Red Stars have announced that at least 16,000 tickets have already been sold for this match, which would absolutely shatter any crowd that the team has played in front of at home. This will also be the first match broadcast on ESPN2, which is a big deal for the league. Kickoff is scheduled for 6:00 p.m. ET on Sunday, so make sure to kick back with a beer and watch the Courage - hopefully - break 16,000+ Chicago hearts.