CARY, N.C. — From the opening minute to the final whistle, the North Carolina Courage never backed down. The team only rested when it won another National Women’s Soccer League championship and fell to the ground to make angels in mountains of confetti.
The Courage beat the Chicago Red Stars 4-0 in front of an announced sellout crowd of 10,227 fans at WakeMed Soccer Park on a hot and humid Sunday, capturing back-to-back NWSL titles and cementing their status as the top club in American women’s soccer.
“It’s a great feeling. There’s nothing like winning a championship,” Courage coach Paul Riley said. “We all pitched in today to stop Sam Kerr from receiving balls.
“I was pleased with the way the team played. We deserved the result.”
The noggin of Courage midfielder Sam Mewis knocked in the final dagger in the 61st minute. Mewis charged head first with no fear to connect with a long feed from Abby Dahlkemper before Chicago keeper Alyssa Naeher could close in with her mitts. That was the Courage’s fourth goal of the game and the Red Stars seemed incapable of mustering a response to the Courage’s powerful attack.
“Abby just served it back in. I weaseled my way in there and got my head on it. It was a great ball. I don’t know what happened,” said Mewis, who was also part of the United States’ 2019 World Cup champion team this summer. “We executed the way we needed to. Chicago is a great team and I give them so much credit.”
In the week leading up to the game, fans, media, coaches and players alike all debated whether the Courage were the overwhelming favorites coming into this game. Some of the arguments for Chicago weren’t so far-fetched. After all, the Red Stars were armed with Sam Kerr, the league’s MVP and Golden Boot winner. They also had creative Japanese midfielder Yuki Nagasato and United States national team stars Julie Ertz and Naeher.
The Red Stars also hadn’t lost to the Courage all season, winning twice and playing to a 1-1 draw. Plus, the league’s Best XI list — albeit questionable — only featured one Courage player and had three Red Stars.
But consider the Courage’s resume: Riley’s side won the NWSL Shield for the third straight season, they set a league single-season record for goals scored with 54 and their lineup featured seven players who played in the World Cup this summer. On top of that, they were playing at home in front of a rowdy and proud bunch of supporters who packed and rocked the foundation at the 17-year-old facility. It was the highest attendance in the history of the stadium for an NWSL contest.
The Courage gave those fans something to cheer about right from the get-go. In the fourth minute, Debinha laid a pass off to Lynn Williams and sprinted up the left flank as Williams carried the ball into the final third. Williams fed Jessica McDonald on the right wing, who then bombed a cross back toward Debinha. The ball bounced around a bit before the Brazilian midfielder fired a shot between three defenders to open the scoring.
Debinha, who put three of her five shots on target, was voted MVP of the match.
“That was crazy. I was following the play. Jess had the ball, I went on my run and it was the perfect time,” Debinha said. “When the ball bounced, and I was like, ‘Well, I have to score this.'”
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McDonald found the back of the net about 20 minutes later. Williams lofted in a cross from the right flank and McDonald leapt in the air by the far post to guide a header past Naeher. Just before halftime, Crystal Dunn notched an unassisted goal to put her team up 3-nil.
For Kerr — the league’s record-setting scorer – and the Red Stars, good looks at goal were scarce. The 26-year-old Australian striker had what looked like a breakaway chance in the 20th minute, but she was stifled by Abby Erceg and then Courage keeper Stephanie Labbe got two mitts on her shot attempt.
Stopping Kerr was a total team effort by the Courage. There was a moment in the first half where Williams, a Courage forward, tracked all the way back to knock Kerr off the ball before she could make her way into the box.
“Sam is an amazing striker. She can change the game at any point, so you always have to watch her,” Williams said. “In that moment, they were on transition off a corner, and in my head I’m like, ‘There’s no way she scores.’ That’s what this team is about. All season long, if someone needs help, we’re going to do it. It’s not just the defender’s job to get it done.”
Kerr was visibly frustrated with the service, or lack thereof, she received in the first half. It was clear she and teammate Savannah McCaskill were not on the same page. North Carolina’s pressure made the Red Stars play frenetic and it was obvious Rory Dames’ side was not comfortable.
“First and foremost, that was very out of character for our team. We usually don’t have those kind of situations on the flow. I think you could attribute to the score, fatigue, the heat — I’m sure there were a multitude of things that went into it,” Dames said of a Kerr outburst toward McCaskill during the match. “We were on the back foot from the get-go tonight. I think it was always going to be a big ask to come in here and beat this Courage team.”
Kerr attempted six shots total, but put just one on frame. Nagasato had just one shot in 90 minutes of play. She was marked for most of the night by veteran Heather O’Reilly, who played the final game of her lengthy and decorated career.
As a team, the Courage fired 20 shots and put 11 of them on target. They controlled 50.4% of possession and had a 76.6% passing accuracy. The Red Stars put just two of their 13 attempts on-frame.
With the NWSL in transition and changes coming – potentially including an altered compensation model and an expansion draft for new teams entering the league – it’s unclear how much longer this Courage group will be together.
Much of this team, including Mewis, Erceg, Dahlkemper, McDonald, Williams and starting fullback Jaelene Hinkle, has been with Riley since he coached Western New York Flash in 2016. That team moved to North Carolina’s Research Triangle in 2017. Through it all, the group has been to four consecutive NWSL finals and won three.
But Sunday, Riley and the players weren’t thinking about the future. They were singing, dancing and celebrating once again on top of the world of women’s pro soccer.
“I thought I would never drink champagne after the World Cup, but, needless to say, I’m probably going to,” Mewis said. “This team worked so hard all year. We earned this. I’m really proud of the girls.”