For the first 81 minutes, a close-to-full-strength Chicago Red Stars team held two-time defending champion North Carolina Courage scoreless. On the backs of USWNT stalwart and 2019 FIFA Best XI Julie Ertz, and World Cup winning goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, the Red Stars stepped up their play, using a stingy defense to meet every challenge thrown at them by the high-octane Courage offense. In the end, it wasn’t quite enough, as Abby Egceg timed her run perfectly to head a ball from Jaelene Daniels in off the crossbar, barely beating the outstretched fingertips of Naeher. The New Zealand international now has seven NWSL goals; six of them have come off of headers.
Look at the Red Stars’ regular-season record against the Courage in 2019, and this is not a remarkable feat. In the first three meetings between the teams last year, the Red Stars beat the Courage twice and tied once. It wasn’t until the Championship match that the Courage were able to assert their dominance, defeating a Chicago team playing without center back Tierna Davidson 4-0. But this is a Courage team that almost everyone is picking to win the entire tournament, a Courage team that isn’t looking to test players or find its identity; after a long break, Paul Riley has his team exactly where he wants them – poised to win. Anything less will be a disappointment.
After a sharky Challenge Cup start, losing to the Spirit and tying the Thorns, and again without a recovering Davidson, this game didn’t look promising for the Red Stars. What both teams provided however, was an open, back-and-forth match, full of entertaining looks on goal, corner kicks, set pieces, saves, and slide tackles. The starting XI for Chicago returned to look more like what we should expect in the knockout rounds, and Dunn, Mewis, and Dahlkemper were all back on the pitch for North Carolina.
Unsurprisingly, North Carolina was on the front foot from the initial whistle. Debinha, the Brazilian international and creative playmaker for the Courage served a ball in to Lynn Williams in the 5th minute, but her header was wide. North Carolina heavily targeted the left flank, repeatedly sending Williams, Debinha, Daniels, and Kristen Hamilton out wide to serve balls in. The combination of Bianca St. Georges (starting at right back), Ertz (sliding back into the defense), and Naeher (returning to goal after being rested last game) were able to fend off the repeated threat until the Red Stars were able to settle in and establish a more possession-oriented game. On the offensive side of the ball, some of Chicago’s best attacks came when defenders St. Georges and Casey Short were able to make runs into the offensive third.
In a much-improved performance over the Red Stars first game against the Washington Spirit, Naeher had four saves on the day, including a clearing punch off a Debinha cross in the 16th minute, a low driven shot by Sam Mewis that she was able to deflect wide in the 19th minute, and a brilliant breakaway save against Hamilton in the 24th.
Chicago’s most promising moments were sparked by mistakes from the North Carolina defense. In the first half, USWNT center back Abby Dahlkemper took too many touches on the ball, and a streaking Kealia Watt collected the ball and broke towards goal. An apparent tug from behind by Dahlkemper, that was not called by the official, slowed Watt down just enough to allow Erceg to track back and pressure her shot, which goalkeeper Katelyn Rowland made a point black save on. Nine minutes later, Yuki Nagasato played a ball into St. Georges who was making a run down the right side of the box. Daniels’ initial touch on the ball settled it for St. Georges instead of clearing it, but St. Georges hit her shot over the crossbar.
The match ended with North Carolina leading in all categories except duals won. The Courage maintained nearly 53% of the possession and had a team passing accuracy of 81.4%. North Carolina defender Erceg was especially impressive in the match. In addition to scoring the only goal, she maintained 94% passing accuracy, went 2/2 on tackles, and had three interceptions and clearances. Likewise, Denise O’Sullivan had 93.6% passing accuracy for the Courage. The Red Stars continue to struggle in the offensive third. Despite some good looks on goal, only two of five shots were on target, and the Courage were able to more than double the number of corner kicks the Red Stars won.
The Courage maintain a perfect 3-0 record through the opening round of the tournament, while the Red Stars have lost 2 games and tied one. Next up, the Red Stars will take on the up-and-coming Utah Royals under new head coach Craig Harrington, at 10:00 pm EST on Sunday, July 12. Then, the following day will see the Courage line up against struggling Sky Blue FC, also at 10:00 pm EST, for their final preliminary match. By Nikki Flores
Photo Credit: Nikki Flores @ Footy Day Photos