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NC Courage 1 - 2 Chicago Red Stars: Discontinuity and defense

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Sam Kerr owns this defense

North Carolina Courage v Chicago Red Stars
Lynn Williams took the lead for North Carolina in the 30th minute.
Photo by Daniela Porcelli/Getty Images

The USWNT players are back for the National Women’s Soccer League, but the new players didn’t fit cohesively into the North Carolina Courage lineup as they fell to the Chicago Red Stars 2-1 on Sunday night. The crowd in Bridgeview, IL was the largest ever for a Red Stars game, coming in at 17,388 fans. That’s an amazing World Cup bounce for Chicago and bodes well for the league.

North Carolina’s signature press was nullified for large periods of the game by efficient passing from the Red Stars. The forwards looked dangerous but couldn’t quite get their goal-scoring mojo going. The midfield looked disconnected, with Sam Mewis struggling to get on the ball and failing frequently to find the proper weight on her passes. It was clear that she wasn’t in the same mindset as her teammates throughout the match. The defense was mediocre, with Abby Erceg trying to holding things together on the back line while Abby Dahlkemper tried to get her feet back underneath her. Unfortunately, Kerr consistently finds ways to beat Erceg when the two are battling in front of goal.

The first half was mostly solid for the Courage, but it never really felt like they got into the second half. Things were pretty even right up until the Red Stars scored the go-ahead goal. After that the gameplan broke down, North Carolina started playing too direct, and Chicago was able to control the game. There were a few shining moments where it looked like the equalizer might come, but it just wasn’t destined to be.

Welcome back, McDonald, Dunn, Dahlkemper, and Mewis!

The Courage have transitioned back to their favored 4-2-2-2, with Dahlekmper, Mewis, and

Jess McDonald each getting a start. Crystal Dunn started on the bench.

The first 15 minutes of the match were easily controlled by Chicago. North Carolina was able to get a few corners, but otherwise they chased the ball around and spent the time feeling each other out. It was obvious through most of the match that these players were going to need some time to reconnect with one another.

Then, all of the sudden, things started to click. Jess McDonald was able to generate a shot that forced Chicago goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher to make a save and the team started forcing some turnovers in the midfield. In the 23rd minute, Debinha had a chance to score when she got in behind the defense, but her shot was blocked by Naeher. After a really strong period of play, the Courage were able to take the lead.

Denise O’Sullivan forced a turnover right at midfield, and she immediately turned up field and passed to McDonald on the right. McDonald passed the ball centrally to Debinha, and she was able to send a phenomenal pass into the path of a streaking Lynn Williams. Naeher hesitated a moment too long before closing down on Williams and she was able to send the ball into the back of the net in the 30th minute.

The Courage kept pressing, but the defense had a major lapse in judgement before the offense could get another goal. Chicago forward Arin Wright had the ball on the right about 35 yards from goal. She sent a cross into the top of the box, and the entire Courage defense looked at Kerr being offside and decided they could stop playing. As crazy as it sounds, other Chicago players can occasionally get into the offense, and while Dahlkemper and Erceg stood with their hands raised in the air, Vanessa DiBernardo was able to sneak in and head the ball home. I hope the defense has to watch that clip every day to start practice. Keep your hand down and clear the ball.

Things started to heat up right after the second half started. Wright forced goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe to make a save early in the half, and Kerr had a goal called back because of a hand ball. On the other end, McDonald and Debinha each missed the frame with close shots, and it felt like North Carolina might build some momentum. Then it was all taken away.

Chicago forward Katie Johnson took the ball down the left side of the pitch and sent a pass to Kerr. Dahlkemper lunged at the ball and missed, but Erceg closed down on Kerr quickly. It’s Kerr, though, so she tapped the ball through and got on the inside edge against Erceg. The one step was enough for Kerr to get off a shot that was deflected by Erceg right between the legs of Labbe. It was a bad sequence.

After the goal, it was time to make some substitutions. Debinha made way for Dunn in the 62nd minute, and McDonald left the game for Kristen Hamilton in the 65th minute. The new players definitely brought a spark, but Dunn seemed a little out of place for parts of the game. Hamilton had a fire lit inside of her, and she was the only Courage player who really came close to scoring for the duration of the game, but her shot pinged off the post and away. It was a frustrating end to a frustrating game.

What needs to change?

The biggest problem with this game was a lack of cohesion. It’s been about two months since these USWNT players were on the pitch with their club team, and slotting right back in against a team like Chicago is extremely tough. The forwards, like always, need to do a better job of finishing good chances, and the defense needs to figure out Sam Kerr. At least we don’t have to play Chicago again for the rest of the regular season. The Courage are still toward the top of the table, and a tough win like this is more likely to energize this team. I really don’t like McCall Zerboni playing in an advanced role. She’s a great enforcer, but she doesn’t do much for the team if she’s forced to facilitate the offense.

Next Saturday we travel to Utah Royals FC...looking for our first-ever win against that team.