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Cut Losses, Kill Darlings: North Carolina Courage 4, Chicago Red Stars 1, NWSL game recap

North Carolina took Chicago apart, but that means the Red Stars were really trying

North Carolina Courage 4 (Dunn, Williams, Debinha, Hamilton)

Chicago Red Stars 1 (Nagasato)

After a long rain delay, the Red Stars finally kicked off against the North Carolina Courage on a Fourth of July evening with more than a little electricity in the air (literally. There was lightning).

Chicago has been linking together quality results for a few weeks now, and it seemed at least possible that the unstoppable force of the Courage could have possibly found its immovable object. However, tonight’s script followed the same one that Portland, Seattle, and Orlando fell prey to in past weeks, with North Carolina turning a 1-0 halftime lead into a 4-1 blowout that made their opponent look far inferior than their actual game-plan deserved.

As North Carolina’s “Us Against the World’ mentality has developed into a bonafide “The Whole League Can’t Take Us Down” reality, it’s worth taking a minute to break that game-plan down, and how it was equally exactly what Chicago should be doing at this point in the season, and that probably doomed them from the start.

North Carolina tends to beat teams closer to their talent level with more viciousness than the squads at the lower end of the NWSL table, and some of that certainly comes from mental awareness, but it also has to do with what makes the Courage so good in the first place. The current reality of trying to win against this team is that it might take some really ugly soccer to pull it off. And the Red Stars weren’t interested in playing ugly soccer on Wednesday.

Instead, they showed up with a lineup that featured a four-player midfield of Vanessa Dibernardo, Julie Ertz, Morgan Brian, and Danny Colaprico, and a outside-back tandem of Arin Gilliland and Brooke Elby. The idea was to possess well, use speed on the flanks, and muddy up the midfield just enough to keep North Carolina honest, and spring Sam Kerr behind the defense.

And it sort of almost worked! In the first half, anyway. The Red Stars successfully got Kerr isolated against the NC center-backs a number of times in the first 20 minutes, but the striker couldn’t take advantage. And 20 minutes was all it took for the Courage to adjust, reset, and let Crystal Dunn place a perfect ball from the top of the box to put the home team up 1-0.

(See what Rory Dames had to say about the match below)

Things didn’t get better after half-time. Off some travel and on short rest, Chicago was always going to struggle to keep up with the Courage, especially when chasing the game. It was just a three-minute sequence, from the 67th to the 70th, that tripled North Carolina’s advantage, and set the tone for the rest of the match. Lynn Williams got a top-of-the-box golazo in the 67th minute, and Debinha tapped in a sitter in the 69th, and suddenly the narrative shifted from Chicago looking better than it had all season, to them becoming just another stooge in North Carolina’s journey to complete dominance. It was incredibly frustrating, but not in a way where I could actually fault the team.

Kristen Hamilton topped the rout off in the 89th minute, but Chicago got a respectability goal in stoppage time after Abby Dahlkemper was called for a foul in the box. Yuki Nagasato struck the penalty home, and the Red Stars joined their 4-1 sestras in the annals of North Carolina’s 2018 story.

And while the performance tonight wasn’t enough to topple the outright rulers of this season, it looked like it’d line up pretty damn well against a lot of the rest of the field, and that’s a team I can get behind. Bring on Sky Blue on Saturday, I think we can take ‘em.