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Think Happy Thoughts: Chicago Red Stars vs North Carolina Courage, 2017 NWSL Playoff Semifinal Preview

The Red Stars are one win away from their first NWSL Championship game— and they only have to beat the Shield winners to get there.

Photo via Chicago Red Stars

It’s here.

The time that holds a memory in almost a fondly painful kind of way.

Seven months ago, when the 2017 season began, the Chicago Red Stars once again embarked on a journey that, while all too familiar, felt somewhat different. Players like Vanessa DiBernardo and Julie Ertz, both 25, had become ‘veterans’ on one of the youngest teams in the NWSL. The strong Red Stars draft class of 2015 suddenly had two seasons of professional soccer, and stints in Australia’s W-League, all on their resume. Casey Short made her arrival in 2016 and had a break out season as an Outside Back that lead to a U.S. allocation for her.

The general optimism has been high this season, but the Red Stars are all business as the playoffs begin this weekend.

Have a dream and then never wake up

In a kick off kit reveal party earlier this year, Vanessa DiBernardo expressed her excitement about the approaching 2017 season team’s culture, saying:

“Ever since the club began – we’re the team that’s always fighting till the end. We’re relentless and we’re hard working. We have evolved into more than that over the years, but that is the core of our group and our team. I think as long as we continue those values we can continue to get to the top place in the league”

Now seven months later the Red Stars find themselves as one of the final top four teams in the NWSL ready to enter another semifinal round. For some it will be their 3rd time, others their 2nd, and for a few players – their first.

Chicago heads into the semifinal against 2017 shield winners North Carolina Courage. On a media conference call, Red Stars Captain Christen Press recognizes the team’s culture and confidence, saying:

“I think that one of the reasons that this team is successful is because a lot of the core had stayed the same and also learned from our predecessors and carry that culture with us. So, having lost in the semifinal the last two years is something that I think has become essential to our history and it is something that we have been very singularly focused in on changing that going forward.”

The NC Courage boast the best record in the league, the best defense in the league, and are current shield winners. And have lost to Chicago 3 times this season. A fact that isn’t lost on the Courage, and the match should be one unlike their previous 3 regular season matches. North Carolina is a team mostly composed with players from the Championship winning 2016 Western New York squad who relocated to Cary, NC this season.

Press believes her team is up to the challenge as the Red Stars have a long history and chemistry of their own, saying:

“I think that this has been the first year that I have been at every NWSL game, as part of the whole season. So, having done that; you can kind of see, and feel, and experience the build to the playoffs in a way that was very different in the past two years with National Team duty, and my first year in the league [2014] coming in half way. So, I think that will make this game even more special for me - and for a lot of the other players that have been bouncing in and out.”

And while the agony of past semifinal losses still lingers, the memories have fueled a Red Stars team ready for this moment since kickoff, with Press emphasizing:

“This year we have really built our team from the ground up, from day one, we’ve all been in this together. It is probably the most deep and team oriented - not any individual player - group, that Chicago Red Stars have ever had. And I think that is why it will be so meaningful for us to get that extra game in the semifinal, play together, enjoy it, and ultimately be successful and win ourselves another chance to play.”

Where we last saw them

Chicago and North Carolina last faced each other back in September on the final regular season home game for the Red Stars. After going down a goal in the first half, the Red Stars bounced back in the second half with a goal and an assist from Yuki Nagasato. Julie Ertz had the game winning goal.

Starting line up we’d like to see

We’ve seen some pretty interesting starting lineups this season, all the way down to the last regular season game. Let’s see if we’re right about this match (probably not, though)

I made it this way, my feet so sore

While a short memory is necessary in this sport more often than not, Chicago has shown they are capable of such in many of their matches where they have played from behind this season for a result. Despite ending their final regular season match on a loss, their team has capable depth that can be relied upon if needed. Considering player rotations or adjustments, Chicago’s bench has been a mix of experience and opportunity.

Rookie Lauren Kaskie got her first start against Orlando’s Marta in the mid. Taylor Comeau shut down Seattle’s Megan Rapinoe on the right flank. 5-year player Jen Hoy has scored goals for her team down the stretch. Hoy expressed what being a Red Star means to her, saying:

“It’s means never being satisfied. Continued growth is an expectation. High expectations. Unity within the team and within the club. It means being part of a professional organization. I really do feel like from the beginning we have come so far, and have so much further to continue to go, but I have enjoyed being a part of an organization that really takes that seriously. Being a Red Star means being proud of the work that you put in and then being able to be proud of the result, and I feel really good about this year.”

Keys To The Match

Mewis vs Ertz

These two players are the best midfielders in the league this year and have been crucial to the success of both their teams, and are likely candidates for their team MVP. It’s no secret that you can’t win the game if you don’t have the ball, so look for these two players to leave it all out on the pitch on Sunday. Zerboni vs Mautz could be another potential midfield battle depending on game day line ups.

Set piece motto

Both teams are fairly matched athletically. Strong defenses with outside backs who get up the flanks and involved in offensive attacks. Two NWSL goal keepers of the year finalists in net. National team forwards in Christen Press and Lynn Williams. While there are many similarities, they stop at set pieces. No team is better at them than North Carolina, and it’s an area Chicago has struggled with this season. A recent goal in Houston by Casey Short could have broken the trend, but the Courage have always been dangerous on theirs.

Unfinished Business

Chicago has made no secret of their goal for this year, and Jen Hoy has a focused optimism on this semifinal saying:

“It is unfinished business for all of us. We’re a different type of team this year. Of course, there’s that excitement of going to the semifinal, but it’s no longer ‘we’re grateful to be here,’ it’s more that we’ve put in the work, this was our plan all season long, we’ve played for months for this game, and for a game afterwards. So, it’s all about business.”

How To Watch

Kickoff: Sunday, October 8th, 2:30pm CDT at WakeMed Field in Cary, NC

TV: Lifetime

Watch Party: Can’t make it to North Carolina? Don’t have cable? Supporters group Chicago Local 134 is hosting a watch party at AJ Hudson’s.

Final Thoughts

You ready big fella? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.