PORTLAND — For the second year in a row, the North Carolina Courage advanced to the National Women’s Soccer League Championship after beating the Chicago Red Stars in a tense semifinal put away by a late goal.
Jessica McDonald and Samantha Mewis scored for the NWSL Shield-winning Courage as they beat the Red Stars 2-0 in a Tuesday match held on the field of one of their fiercest rivals, the Portland Thorns. Providence Park held an announced crowd of 4,646 fans assembled on short notice after Hurricane Florence denied North Carolina its right to host the semifinal.
“I think it meant a lot to North Carolina,” Courage head coach Paul Riley said after the win. “It’s been a lot of hardship for everybody. We were representing more than just Raleigh and the Courage today.”
North Carolina will play Portland for the title Saturday at Providence Park. It will be a rematch of last year’s final, which North Carolina lost 1-0. Kickoff is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. ET, and the expected sellout match will be broadcast on Lifetime.
Tuesday’s game started at a fast pace. Both teams had rapid-fire opportunities in the opening stages. Chicago looked to possess the ball and build attacks, while North Carolina put together incisive breakaways when its players won the ball. Red Stars forward Yūki Nagasato fired an early shot off the crossbar in the 3rd minute after getting free in the box.
North Carolina went ahead out of nowhere: Crystal Dunn won the ball in a dangerous position and played the ball in to McDonald, who stayed in front of Julie Ertz to get a one-on-one with Chicago goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher. McDonald, as she so often has done throughout her long NWSL career, finished neatly at the far post.
Chicago stayed on the front foot, though. Sam Kerr turned to shoot in the 9th minute, but found only the post, and Morgan Brian’s volley from the top of the box in the 15th minute was blocked by Courage defender Abby Erceg. Nagasato produced a lovely bit of skill to chest a long ball and volley toward goal in the 41st minute, but she couldn’t connect well enough to beat Courage keeper Sabrina D’Angelo.
The Courage seemed happy to let Chicago have the ball and try to catch them on the break or set pieces — especially after taking a lead. McDonald sent in a header off a corner that Nagasato had to clear off the line in the 24th minute.
“I thought it was probably one of the worst games we’ve played in the season, and I think we were very lucky to not go down early,” said Erceg, Defender of the Year candidate. “For once, luck was on our side. I think it could have been a very different game had they scored those chances that hit the post.”
Chicago came out of the half surging, but the Courage did a better job of keeping the Red Stars in front of their defense. Chicago midfielder Morgan Brian fired a volley from outside the box in the 47th minute and defender Casey Short let one rip from 25 yards after winning the ball deep in the 54th minute.
“We were getting picked apart in the first half,” Riley said of the Courage. “Morgan Brian was getting the ball, Colaprico, DiBernardo — they were hurting us bad. Nagasato was getting in between lines, she caused us a lot of problems tonight. And then we just backed off, dropped 30 yards deeper than we normally do. It’s not really normal for us.”
On the other end, Courage midfielder Debinha had the ball in the back of the net in the 51st minute, but was quickly flagged offside. Chicago defender Arin Gilliland sent in a dangerous cross in the 66th minute, but somehow neither Kerr nor Nagasato could get their heads on it when left free in the box.
Kerr — the NWSL’s Golden Boot winner — nearly got around the outside of defender Merritt Mathias in the box in the 71st minute, forcing Mathias to pull her down outside the area and earn a yellow card in the process. And Brian very nearly got on the end of the subsequent service, but she caught a big chunk of the post with her chest instead.
Defending Kerr “sucks,” according to Erceg, who was often tasked with marking the goalscorer.
“She’s very good. She’s so good. You can watch footage of her all day, but she’s so dynamic in the way she plays, she’s not predictable, which makes it very difficult to mark her,” Erceg said. “That’s one of the trademarks of her game. She can pull a goal out of nothing, which makes her dangerous all over the field. So, we really wanted to shut her down today, and I thought we did a pretty good job of it.”
North Carolina grew into the game as the minutes wore on, getting decent service into the box. And Chicago couldn’t maintain its level of energy throughout the second half.
“I thought the first 15 minutes of the second half, we got up on them and pushed them and had them pinned in a little bit, but the more players you send forward against North Carolina the more space there is for them to counter,” Red Stars coach Rory Dames said. “When they started playing balls into the wide spaces and you have Jess [McDonald] and Lynn [Williams] tracking onto them, it turns into an up and down transition game, and it takes a lot out of you.”
The Courage finally put the game to bed in the 86th minute. Chicago turned the ball over after Danielle Colaprico accidentally passed the ball into Timothy Ford, the center official. Dunn grabbed her second assist by taking control and sending the ball to Mewis, who curled a shot from 25 yards into the top corner of Naeher’s net to seal North Carolina’s spot in the final for the second time in the team’s two years of existence.
The Red Stars, playing in their fourth semifinal in four years, were once again denied a chance to make it to the NWSL final for the first time in club history.
“I think last year we were pretty disappointed that we didn’t turn up in the game, and I don’t think that’s the case at all tonight. I thought we were really good,” Dames said. “This one will probably sting the most. It’s a special group, a different dynamic. It doesn’t feel real good, but I’m extremely proud of the group.”