Chicago Red Stars 2 Nagasato 52’, Ertz 84’
North Carolina Courage 1 Williams 15’
The last home game of the season always has me feeling wistful. That the last home game happened relatively far from the actual end of the season is disorienting. This team now will be an abstract thing for the better part of a month, hot on the warpath toward the playoffs but far aflung. Even if they qualify, they might not get to play at home at all in the offseason. This means tonight is probably the last time we see blue and white shirts at Toyota Park until next spring.
You get so bogged down in the week-to-week struggle, the fight to make the postseason, all the trades and gossip and shenanigans, and it’s hard to stop and breathe and appreciate where you are. The season’s basically over now. We won’t see the Red Stars at home again until April 2018, barring some luck with playoff seeding. It all passes so quickly these days.
But tonight, we have the home finale for the Red Stars, and they closed out their season at Toyota Park with a scrappy 2-1 win over the league leaders North Carolina.
Obviously the big team news coming out of the gate: new signing Morgan Brian named to the bench. That she didn’t get a start isn’t too surprising— at this stage of the season team chemistry counts for a lot, and Brian just got here— but there’s no way that name wasn’t going to take up some oxygen in the room.
For all that I’ve been dumping on the Red Stars lately, I have to say they looked better out of the gate. Their movement was better. Their passing was better. I was skeptical about the lineup— Comeau as the holding midfielder, Ertz in the #10 spot— but for a few minutes, at least, it was working.
But it wasn’t working well enough. In the 15th minute, the midfield gave the ball away too cheaply in their defensive third and opened themselves up to a quick breakaway. Lynn Williams finished cleanly to put the visitors up 0-1.
This is where all my lineup anxieties came back. Chicago’s defending has been so strong, in part, because Ertz was shielding the back line in her new role as a holding mid. But today they had her playing in the hole and deputized a fullback to play as the defensive midfielder. By the time a half hour passed, I was just glad it was only 0-1.
And then immediately after I thought that, North Carolina almost made it 0-2. Thank goodness for the offside flag.
And thank goodness for Christen Press. Even when the Red Stars seemed very lost in the woods, Press continued to cause problems for North Carolina’s defense.
The rest of the first half was mostly NC defenders blocking shots from Christen Press. Hurling themselves bodily in front of her and the ball. No small task, given the kind of power Press can put into a shot. But it worked, and Chicago went into the tunnel down a goal and not feeling great about life.
(Some halftime stats: 50/50 possession, NC 12/5 on shots while Chicago were 3/0. Yikes.)
At least the Red Stars were aware of their predicament. And early in the second half, they responded. In very similar circumstances to North Carolina’s opener, Christen Press won the ball Chicago’s attacking third, hit the Courage on the break, and crossed to substitute Yuki Nagasato for the open net finish. 1-1.
In the 10 minutes or so that followed the game returned to some semblance of equilibrium. No killer chances on either side, but plenty of possibility for something to happen.
And in the 64th minute, the moment that fans had been waiting for finally came.
Now it was a matter of waiting and seeing what she could do.
The next big moment wouldn’t come until the 76th minute when Alyssa Naeher took down a Courage attacker inside her box but the referee chose not to award a penalty.
I mean, I’ll take it, but North Carolina really should’ve had a penalty here.
The Courage certainly resented that decision seven minutes later. After peppering the box for several minutes, Nagasato crossed to the far post and found Ertz’ head. The erstwhile #10 (or “Ertzwhile,” as the case may be) headed home to give Chicago a 2-1 lead.
The Red Stars, at least, were back in familiar territory now. A one-goal lead, late in a game, and all they had to do was defend it.
(Of course the best way to defend a lead is to make it bigger BUT HEY WHAT DO I KNOW.)
Yet, late season mishaps aside, this is what the Red Stars do best. North Carolina’s siege produced no reward, and the league leaders were sent packing.
The Chicago Red Stars (10W 5D 6L, 35pts, 3rd place) will finish their 2017 regular season campaign on the road. They’ll travel to Kansas City next Saturday to start the final spring to the postseason. If they can meet or beat Sky Blue’s result against Washington next weekend, the Red Stars will be assured of a playoff spot.