North Carolina Courage 1 O’Sullivan 89’
Subconsciously, I’ve been practicing my “I’m not mad I’m just disappointed” face all week for this game. I desperately didn’t want things to end this way. I wanted the title for this recap to be “BIG MOOD.” I was going to plaster this post with Sofia Huerta GIFs and lines of “CASEY SHORT IS FASTER THAN YOU” in H1 formatting. I wanted a trip for the Finals. I wanted the players to finally get their reward for years of hard work.
But sustained hard work doesn’t count for shit in this game. You come up big in the big moments, or you go home. That’s how it goes.
And after a long and at times difficult season, the Chicago Red Stars are going home after dropping their NWSL playoff semifinal against North Carolina in a 1-0 loss. It was no less than they deserved on the day, but after years of grinding, this team deserves nice things. And they’ll have to wait at least another year to get it.
I’ve been complaining a lot about lineups in recent recaps, and I feel like I owe y’all an apology for that. I can say that I had no complaints today. Rory Dames put out Chicago’s strongest possible XI against the Courage. Whatever happened today, no one would be able to say the Red Stars didn’t come in ready to fight.
Throughout the season Chicago have had a tendency to play cautiously in the beginning of a game. Set up a strong defense, hold tight while the opposition thrash against it, wait for an opening. Today, the knives were out from the start. While the Red Stars did commit some unnecessary turnovers and unforced errors, North Carolina’s own nervous mistakes balanced things out. The opening five or ten minutes were frantic in a way most Red Stars games aren’t. It was somewhat concerning, to be sure, but Chicago were making a clear statement. “If we’re going down, we won’t go quietly.”
After 10 minutes both teams got enough of a handle on things that the stupid turnovers abated (not counting a worrying NC counterattack around the 25th minute, dutifully broken up by Casey Short). But it was still fairly back-and-forth, enough so that it was something of a curiosity to see the score still at 0-0 after half an hour.
As that half-hour mark approached, North Carolina started to take control of the game. For Red Stars fans, things started to look familiar. This team has withstood sieges before. But this season, we’ve witnessed the defensive battlements fall a few times too often. Our collective rock-hard confidence in Chicago’s defense has been tested, and I would’ve preferred not to have to rely on it.
But with the first half winding down I think we all had to accept that this game was going to be sloppy as hell. And that, in all probability, the match would be decided by who could capitalize on the others’ mistakes.
At the start of stoppage time, it really looked like first blood would go to North Carolina off of a corner kick. Katie Naughton came up big with a goal line clearance.
NC soon earned another corner that went nowhere, and the first half came to a close. I don’t know about y’all, but I definitely needed a breather.
The Red Stars needed to come out strong in the second half. That... did not happen. While North Carolina shifted to hitting Chicago on the counter, there was no shortage of opportunities to do exactly that. That plus some set piece trickery could have— and probably should have— put the Courage in front in the first ten minutes of the second half.
Somehow the Red Stars resisted substantial pressure through an hour of soccer. Reason says they really shouldn’t have, but they did, somehow. It was genuinely hard to tell if North Carolina’s deserved reward was coming soon enough, or if the Red Stars were really going to pull a rabbit out of their hats here.
The game continued in this thread, with the Red Stars hanging on by the skin of their teeth. As the pressure mounted, Chicago started making more mistakes. Like Alyssa Naeher handling the ball outside the box and then taking a nap on it??
As the second half wound down it was clear that the Red Stars were the weaker of the two teams. Our attackers were misfiring and the back line wasn’t doing enough to keep North Carolina out. The only thing that kept Chicago in it toward the end was Naeher— and she had plenty of missteps on her own. If the Courage found a goal now and won this thing it would be no less than they deserved.
Sure enough, that moment finally came for North Carolina. An 89th minute corner kick was headed out, only to land at the feet of Denise O’Sullivan, whose deflected shot through traffic caught Naeher flat-footed.
And that was that. The Red Stars pushed hard for a late equalizer but it just never came.
That makes for three straight playoff appearances in a row for the Chicago Red Stars— and three semifinal exits. This is a team that, on paper, should have at least booked a trip to the Final, if not won the whole thing. There will undoubtedly be questions for this squad and the technical staff in the long dark winter of the offseason.
For now though, we could all use a breather.