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Familiar connection puts Chicago Red Stars into NWSL final

Chicago Red Stars forward Sam Kerr celebrates her goal in the Red Stars's 1-0 win against the Portland Thorns in an NWSL semifinal on Oct. 20, 2019. (ISI Photography/Chicago Red Stars)

BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. — After years of losing in the semifinals, the Chicago Red Stars finally broke through and did so via a familiar connection.

The Red Stars beat the Portland Thorns 1-0 Sunday in an NWSL semifinal. The Red Stars advance to next week’s final at the North Carolina Courage, which beat Reign FC in the other semifinal on Sunday.

Yuki Nagasato, the league’s assist leader, found Sam Kerr, the league’s leading goal scorer, for the game-winning goal. Nagasato lobbed a long ball that hit Kerr in stride. Kerr finished into the side netting in the eighth minute.

Kerr won the Golden Boot for the third consecutive year, the last two in Chicago, with 18 goals this season. Nagasato had eight goals and eight assists. That connection has delivered all season and came through again in a big moment.

“Any time Yuki gets on the ball I know I’m probably in on goal,” Kerr said. “It was just an amazing passage of play. I’m glad we could get the goal. I didn’t get super pumped because I thought there’s 90 minutes to go in this game. I thought there would be more.”

That goal gave the Red Stars their first ever lead in a playoff game. Chicago lost in the semifinals each of the past four years.

“It feels amazing,” Kerr said. “Obviously last year was really disappointing for us.

“We’ve been waiting 13 months for this game. We’ve been working towards this game all year. We deserve to be there.”

The Red Stars have experienced four straight years of positive regular seasons and short, disappointing playoff runs. When the game ended, it was clear what it mean to the players, fans and coaches.

The announced crowd of 9,218 at SeatGeek Stadium nearly erupted a minute before the final whistle when Nagasato set up Kerr for a shot in front. Kerr was denied by Portland goalkeeper Adrianna Franch. The crowd noise was still significant when the game ended.

Most of the crowd stuck around well after and the players went over to thank the fans. The stadium chanted the team’s name and banged thundersticks, the giveaway for the game. The tension of the final minutes transformed into jubilation.

“Huge,” Red Stars coach Rory Dames said of the crowd’s impact. “The 75th minute when they started chanting the video that went out last night and we were on the back foot a little bit you could just see the group get a little bit of life and come back into it.”

Kerr’s goal was the only one the Red Stars needed, but it wasn’t easy the rest of the way. The Thorns gradually ramped up the pressure throughout the match.

Portland entered the match having scored one goal in the final five matches of the regular season. The Thorns’ struggles near goal continued with just two shots on target.

“Unfortunate first half,” Portland coach Mark Parsons said. “They controlled the game with their verticality and we didn’t know how to get the game back. In the second half we did a much better job of getting back in.”

Next week’s match will be the Red Stars’ first appearance in the NWSL final.

“When the final whistle blew it was a good feeling and then about 10 minutes later it goes away quick because you realize you gotta go play North Carolina in North Carolina next week and you kind of move on to that,” Dames said. “Super excited for the players, the organization, the fans.”

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