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Sam Kerr, Yuki Nagasato present unique challenge to Courage’s defense in NWSL final

Abby Erceg is one of the NWSL’s top defenders, but she hasn’t figured out how to stop Sam Kerr yet.

RALEIGH, N.C. — Sam Kerr might be the most dangerous striker in the world of women’s soccer.

Between the 2019 National Women’s Soccer League season and the World Cup, she’s scored 24 goals and dished out five assists in 26 matches. Few teams have been able to thwart the 26-year-old’s scoring skills and among Kerr’s most tortured victims this season have been the North Carolina Courage. In three matches, the Australian has found the back of the net four times, leading her Chicago Red Stars to two wins and a draw.

When the teams face off in front of an expected sellout crowd in Cary, N.C. during the NWSL final, the Courage’s defenders will ask themselves this question once again: Just how, exactly, will they stop Kerr?

World-class defender Abby Erceg isn’t so sure.

“I don’t know. If I knew the answer, we would’ve shut her down by now, you know? She’s good,” Erceg said ahead of the final that will kick off at 3:30 p.m. ET and air on ESPN. “She just recreates herself every year. You think you’ve got her solved and then the next year she comes out and she’s better.”

Kerr took home her second NWSL MVP award this season after scoring 18 goals in league play. She’s a dynamic forward, she’s lightning-fast and she’s always making the defense think twice.

“I’m constantly checking over my shoulder to see where she is. She’s tough to play against,” Erceg said. “And she’s super quick, so that helps as well. Anytime you switch off against her, she’s going to be behind your back and scoring on transition.”

But Kerr hasn’t always been so dominant against the Courage. During four games against Paul Riley’s side last year, Kerr found the back of the net just twice and the Red Stars didn’t win either match.

One of the differences for Kerr this season could be her improved chemistry with playmaker Yuki Nagasato. The 32-year-old Japanese midfielder has eight goals and nine assists this year, and with Kerr, has formed one of the NWSL’s most lethal attacking duos.

Kerr said that she and Nagasato weren’t on the same page during her first few games with Chicago in 2018, but they found some magic about five games into last season.

“And then from there, it just went bang. I’ve played with and against so many Japanese players that I knew how’d she play and I’d seen Yuki play. We played against her so many times and she gave us nightmares. I just trusted her,” Kerr told Pro Soccer USA. “Every time she gets the ball, I know I’m going to be in on goal. When you trust a teammate like I trust Yuki, it’s so easy to play because I know she’s never going to lose the ball, so I can make movements and take defenders away.

“[Our chemistry has] been building and building and I don’t think it’s at its peak yet.”

The Courage got see how lethal Kerr and Nagasato could be during the first game of the NWSL season. In the 26th minute on April 13 at WakeMed Soccer Park, a Courage turnover soon landed at the feet of Nagasato, who turned on the ball and threaded a pass up the pitch, only to find Kerr sprinting between Erceg and Merritt Mathias. After out-running Erceg, Kerr danced around goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe to score her first goal of the season.

Sam Kerr of the Chicago Red Stars outruns NC Courage defender Abby Erceg and goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe on April 13, 2019 at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, NC. (Mitchell Northam / Pro Soccer USA)

Crystal Dunn later equalized in that match for the Courage, earning them a draw, the only game they didn’t lose to Chicago this season.

“Yuki is super technical, a smart player. She’s great on the ball. I think her ability to kind of drift away from the play but also be involved at the same time, just kind of waiting for the ball to drop to her feet, is what makes her dangerous,” Dunn said. “When she gets on the ball, she’s crafty as hell. You can’t allow her to get on the ball. She pulls the strings a lot in the midfield and has a creative mind.”

There are many teams in the league who don’t want to get out and run with the Courage. When traveling to WakeMed Soccer Park or even hosting Paul Riley’s side, some opponents have been content with sitting back and absorb pressure. If they can come out of playing against the Courage with a 0-0 or 1-1 draw, that’s fine with them.

But Chicago is one of the few teams in the league that hasn’t done that this season. They’ve gone out and attacked the Courage. The Red Stars have been confident in their style, played their way and it’s worked for them.

“They go after it, which I really respect from them. To go against a team like us and with our record – and I’m not bragging – to not sit in and be confident in the way they’re playing, I mean, kudos to them. They’re a great team,” Erceg said. “What I respect about them the most, or what I enjoy about playing them the most, is that they’re making us better as players. When they come out, we have to be better. We have to find ways to break them down. They pose a lot of questions of our players. … I really think this game is going to be a good test of the two best teams in the league.”

And that respect is mutual. When asked how she’s been able to score so often against a formidable backline of Erceg, Abby Dahlkemper and Jaelene Hinkle, Kerr struggles to find an answer.

“I have no idea. Every game I go into, I want to score, I want to do well, I want to help my team,” Kerr said. “It’s just happened those games and hopefully it continues Sunday. But, it’s definitely not easy scoring against them. It’s not just the defenders; it’s the midfielders that don’t allow the ball to get through, it’s the forwards. It’s difficult. It’s going to be a team effort.”

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