CARY, N.C. – The Chicago Red Stars defense was locked in. Even on their home turf, cracking Chicago’s low-block backline proved to be a tough task for the defending National Women’s Soccer League champs, the North Carolina Courage.
The Courage won women’s professional soccer’s treble last season – the league’s shield, NWSL championship and the International Champions Cup. But as skilled and talented as they are, the Courage could only find the back of the net once on the league’s opening night. Luckily, the Red Stars put just one shot in goal, too.
The Courage and Red Stars left the first match of their 2019 seasons with a point Saturday night, playing to a 1-1 draw in front of an announced crowd of 4,053 fans at WakeMed Soccer Park.
The Red Stars got their goal – the first of the NWSL season – by way of Sam Kerr, the league’s reigning scoring champ. Crystal Dunn notched the equalizer for the Courage.
“I thought it was a really good performance from us. The quality of play was really good for the first game of the season, so I’m happy with that,” Courage head coach Paul Riley said. “We need to get a little sharper in the final third. . . . To be honest with you, all in all, that’s as good of a first game performance we’ve had together, probably ever.
“Give [Chicago]credit too. They dug in, they defended well. They blocked about a million crosses and shots and corner kicks. They battled through. Hats off to them. Tactically, they were difficult to break down.”
On the stat sheet, the Courage dominated, controlling 60 percent of possession while bombarding the Red Stars’ penalty area with 24 shots and 13 corners. Six Courage shots landed on target. In all, the Courage created 12 chances.
But only one of those chances resulted in a shot that snuck past Chicago goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, who corralled five saves.
Before the match, the Courage received their championship rings from their 2018 season. And when the match started, they looked like a team that wanted to score quickly, firing two shots in the first seven minutes and taking three corners in the first nine minutes.
But Chicago’s defense was stingy. Even without head coach Rory Dames on the sideline – he remained in the locker room for the majority of the game with flu-like symptoms – the Red Stars didn’t budge. They came to North Carolina with the goal of playing a gritty, grind-it-out style of soccer. And it worked.
The Red Stars racked up 31 tackles and doled out 11 fouls to any Courage player who wanted one.
“We realized that they attack the box in numbers and we needed to make sure that we match up with them on a numerical capacity, and then we looked to hurt them with weapons that we had in areas where we felt they were weaker,” Chicago assistant coach Craig Harrington said.
Chicago turned defense into offense in the 26th minute, pouncing on a North Carolina turnover and turning it into a fast break. Chicago’s Yuki Nagasato wound up with possession around midfield and she quickly played a sharp through ball to Kerr, who was streaking up the damp pitch. Kerr split the Courage’s World Cup-bound centerbacks, then danced around goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe to get an open shot, which she cleanly put against the back of the net.
A season ago, the standout Australian forward slotted 16 shots past opposing goalkeepers for points.
“Yuki’s a gem. She just puts everything on a platter,” Kerr said. “I just had to take my chances. Glad to finish it.”
Down a goal, North Carolina didn’t stop being active in Chicago’s third of the pitch.
In the 65th minute, the Courage found the game-tying goal, thanks to a quality finish from Dunn. After a throw-in from Jessica McDonald, Dunn settled the ball near the edge of Chicago’s box, beat three defenders and sprinted towards the middle, slicing a low hard shot through a defender’s legs that rolled inside the far post, out of reach for Naeher.
— NC Courage (@TheNCCourage) April 14, 2019
While Dunn typically plays fullback for the U.S. national team, she’s an attacking midfielder in Riley’s world. She scored eight goals and assisted on seven others for the Courage last season in 23 appearances. Saturday night, she fired five shots, landing three of them on target.
“On my goal, I mean, they weren’t marking me. Maybe they underestimated me, and that’s okay,” Dunn said. “They left me wide open. I think they thought Jess was going to throw a long ball in.”
The Courage have a quick turnaround from this game. They’re set to host the Orlando Pride on Wednesday. The Courage trounced the Pride 4-0 in a preseason friendly last month.
Riley doesn’t expect Orlando to play the same way, and in turn doesn’t foresee a similar result for his club.
“This year, I have a feeling there’s going to be a lot of low blocks, a lot of numbers across the penalty box, making it difficult for us. It’s a great challenge and a show of respect to our group,” Riley said. “I think a lot of teams will play low on us. If you watch the Orlando game from preseason, they came out and played against us, and you know what happened. So, I can’t imagine a lot of teams coming here and opening up and being brave on their front foots.”