BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. — The returning United States women’s national team players were the main attraction for the Chicago Red Stars, but they weren’t the stars of the game.
Vanessa DiBernardo and Sam Kerr notched goals for the Red Stars in a 2-1 win against the North Carolina Courage.
The match marked the return of the Red Stars’ four USWNT players. Julie Ertz, Alyssa Naeher, Morgan Brian and Tierna Davidson all started. Davidson subbed out at halftime as a precaution after entering the match with a hamstring strain.
The Courage also had Abby Dahlkemper, Sam Mewis, Jess McDonald and Crystal Dunn make their returns from the World Cup. Dunn was a sub in the second half, while the other three Courage players started.
The Red Stars announced a sellout days in advance of the match. The announced crowd was 17,388 at SeatGeek Stadium on Sunday. That is a record crowd for a stand alone Red Stars match.
“I think it just shows you where it could be,” Ertz said. “That’s what we’re trying to get all the way across. Obviously with the national team we’ve done really well to continue that growth. It’s about bringing it back to the NWSL as well. It doesn’t change my mindset. I go in to try to be the best I can on the field and grow as a player and be a good teammate. That doesn’t change at all. I just have to scream louder because it’s louder, but other than that, that’s the only thing that really changes.”
North Carolina (6-3-4, 22 points) scored first through Lynn Williams in the 30th minute. Debinha played a well-weighted through ball and Williams finished off the breakaway.
Naeher was busy in goal for the Red Stars (6-5-2, 20 points), keeping her team in the game early on.
Seven minutes after Williams scored, the Red Stars tied the match. Arin Wright sent in a cross from the right and DiBernardo finished on a first-touch shot. The home crowd erupted.
“It’s definitely exciting to score in front of such a big fan base,” DiBernardo said. “Every goal you score is special in a different way.”
In the second half, Katie Johnson found Kerr with a through ball and the Australian did her thing to finish off the chance. Kerr nutmegged both a defender and goalkeeper Stephanie Debbe for what ended up as the game-winner.
That was Kerr’s 10th goal of the season, which leads the league.
“You give Sam Kerr one chance, she buries it,” Courage coach Paul Riley said. “We sometimes need six or seven chances to do what Sam Kerr can do with one.”
The win put the Red Stars in third place in the league. Considering the team has never won a playoff game and has needed to win on the last game of the regular season to get into the playoffs, Sunday ranks as one of the most important wins in team history.
Red Stars coach Rory Dames ranked it the second most important win for the team.
“I feel like we might be overhyping the 13th game of the year,” Dames said. “I would say the game that we won five years ago to actually qualify for the playoffs, to break that door down, was a little bigger.”
Dames also said it was nice to have a large crowd cheering for his team this time.
“When we went to Utah last year for their opener we played in this,” Dames said of the atmosphere. “We obviously play in this every time we go to Portland, so to actually have them cheering for you instead of against you was huge.”
This is the second time the Red Stars beat the Courage at home this season. They also picked up a draw at North Carolina to open the season.
After drawing a big crowd — the biggest of four NWSL matches this weekend — the talk of the players and coaches on both sides was about maintaining this beyond one game. A number of the Red Stars players were signing autographs and posing for photos with fans over a half hour after the game ended.
“It’s getting people to know that the Chicago Red Stars are here and it’s a great product on the field,” Brian said. “I think you saw that tonight. It was a fun game. It was close. Great teams in the league.”
“This is what the NWSL should be like every week,” Riley said. “They are a quality team, quality players, great coach. They can do that every week and it makes every game so much better to come to when you get 17,000. It’s like a playoff game. You want it every week. This is what’s it all about.”