NWSL Semi-Final Preview: #1 North Carolina Courage v. #4 Chicago Red Stars
Date: Sunday, October 8
Time: 3:30 PM EST
Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park – Cary, NC
Season Head-to-Head: Chicago won the season series 3-0-0. The first meeting of the two clubs was May 21 in Cary, a 3-1 Chicago win with goals coming from Sofia Huerta, Christen Press, and Vanessa DiBernardo.
Just six days later, the rematch in Chicago saw Danielle Colaprico open the scoring in the 27th minute. Her tally was answered by Abby Erceg in stoppage time of the first half for the Courage. Goals from Alyssa Mautz and DiBernardo pushed the lead to two for Chicago before Debinha pulled a goal back late to mark the final score at 3-2 in favor of Chicago.
It wasn’t until September 3 in Chicago’s final home match of the season that North Carolina would have a chance to notch their first win against Red Stars. Things started well for NC with a Lynn Williams goal that ended up being the only goal of the first half. Unfortunately for North Carolina it was also their only goal of the match after Yuki Nagasato tied the game and Julie Ertz headed home the game-winner with 6 minutes left in the match. The final score gave Chicago a 2-1 victory and a season sweep of the Courage.
North Carolina Courage
The 2017 Supporters Shield winners and defending NWSL champions (albeit as Western New York Flash), host in the second semi-final of the weekend.
North Carolina finished the regular season with a record of 16-7-1, scoring 38 goals and conceding 26. The Courage led the league in shots with 317, putting 138 on frame – good for 2nd among NWSL clubs.
Lynn Williams’ 9 goals and 5 assists led the team with Ashley Hatch (7 goals, 1 assist) and Samantha Mewis (6 goals, 3 assists) providing most of the offensive punch for North Carolina.
Coach Paul Riley downplayed his team’s status as the default favorites for the title in an interview on NWSLsoccer.com, saying he felt his team were the underdog in this match, having lost to Chicago all 3 times during the regular season. He also added that the Courage “have to be the underdog” since the Supporters Shield winners “never” win the title.
Certainly North Carolina will be planning on changing that storyline. In addition to having the best regular season record, they boast strength at every level. Katelyn Rowland is up for Goalkeeper of the Year and pairs up with Defender of the Year Candidate Abby Dahlkemper to anchor the defense. MVP candidate Samantha Mewis and Ashley Hatch, who is a Rookie of the Year candidate, sure up the midfield. Lynn Williams up top was 5th in the goal scoring race in NWSL. Coach Riley (Coach of the year candidate) will have his well-balanced squad ready and waiting for a Chicago team they ought to know very well.
Chicago Red Stars
Chicago comes in to the match as the #4 seed after losing to Portland on the final match-day with most of their starting XI getting some rest. Orlando City was able to sneak into the 3rd position with their win and the Chicago loss, resulting in a 1st round match-up with North Carolina, who they beat each of the 3 times they played in the regular season – the only team to do so.
The Red Stars finished the regular season 11-7-6, scoring 34 and allowing 30. Led in scoring by Christen Press (11 goals, 4 assists on 85 shots), Chicago brings a balanced game with Julie Ertz strengthening the defense in holding midfield, and Sofia Huerta (6 goals, 4 assists) in a more offensive minded midfield role.
While they certainly won’t be taking their opponent for granted, Chicago has to feel confident going into Sunday. Defeating any opponent, let alone the Supporter Shield holder, 3 straight times is no small feat. Making it a 4-in-a-row with the Title match on the line, is a whole different animal.
Match-up to Watch: Samantha Mewis v. Julie Ertz
In the most recent match between these two teams on September 3rd, Julie Ertz was phenomenal as the holding midfielder for Chicago, contributing to the first Red Stars goal by taking the ball off of Samantha Mewis in the attacking end. The result was a Christen Press pass to Yuki Nagasato for the tying goal. Later, she had an incredible headed goal for the game winner in the 2-1 Chicago victory.
On the other side is North Carolina midfielder and Ertz’s USWNT teammate Samantha Mewis. Mewis is pivotal in linking up the defense with the offense and has really blossomed in her second year of NWSL play into an excellent player in the middle of the park. Her height (6′ tall) and game recognition make her a force.
The team that controls the midfield will control this match. It is reasonable to expect the Ertz/Mewis battle to be where the game turns for either team.
Garett– As mentioned in the preview above, Chicago has had North Carolina’s number this year. Coach Rory Dames has figured out something about playing North Carolina that his team has been able to turn in to Ws. However, they haven’t played in Cary, NC since May where the Courage are 9-2-0 since that May 21 loss.
It’s a new season, as they say.
I predict the game to start out with a couple nervy moments for the Red Stars, but ultimately a scoreless first half. In the middle portions of the 2nd half, Sofia Huerta will break through with a goal that will ultimately be the winner, as Casey Short and the back line of Chicago play shut down defense in front of Alyssa Naeher in goal for the clean sheet.
Chicago advances with the 1-0 upset.
Steve – Chicago is sure to give the Courage some headaches, with a spine of Naeher – Short – Ertz – Huerta – Press having plenty of talent for an upset of North Carolina.
However, I just can’t bet against Paul Riley.
The Englishman has his entire squad bought into his mentality and has had them firing on all cylinders since day one. North Carolina is just too good, with too many players in form and playing cohesively.
The Red Stars will make this a fun contest, but look for Lynn William to do Lynn Williams playoff things. Sam Mewis will run the midfield and North Carolina’s back-line will do their job.
3-1 Courage, Williams brace and a Mewis goal late to finish it off. Press gets one for Chicago to give the Cary faithful some nerves.