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Step And A Leap: North Carolina Courage vs Chicago Red Stars, NWSL 2018 Playoff Semifinal Preview

If the Red Stars want to play for a Championship they’ve got to get through North Carolina - together

Photo by Nikita Taparia

It’s the most wonderful time of the year.

The Chicago Red Stars will compete in their fourth consecutive NWSL Playoff semifinal as a franchise. And while the opponent is a familiar one, the semblance around this year’s Red Stars team is one that looks and feels different as they embark on another postseason campaign.

Of the original 2015 team to make the playoffs for the first time in Red Stars NWSL history, only five players are still with the current roster. Players and staff alike feel like that’s a difference-maker.

Holding Hands Before The Storm Hits

With Hurricane Florence dominating the news last week and touching down this past weekend, it was the lackadaisical path to a decision regarding the original date and location of this semifinal that put the league under the spotlight.

The Red Stars continued to prepare for their semifinal, and when the announcement was made the team was still in the midst of preparing for their match, regardless of the decision.

Julie Ertz, drafted by Chicago back in 2014 and now team captain, believes her side has the same mentality regardless of the change in date and location.

“I don’t think perspective really changes because our main goal is the same,” said Ertz. “We want to win the game. We want to win every game that we play. [. . . ] The game plan has always been the same. It’s the same opponent and we know how good North Carolina is, and we knew at some point we were going to have to see them.”

Ertz feels like the team has a new outlook and re-energized feeling heading into the playoffs this year. In years prior, Chicago has found themselves feeling the pressure and perhaps found themselves fatigued. Not this year.

“I think for us collectively, we want to show each other how hard we work for each other. How much we want this. How much— as time has gone, as adversity has come— we’ve really just faced it all together. I think that’s the ultimate thing we want to show, is that we’re enjoying playing the soccer that we’re playing and this is probably the best we’ve played on the field this year.”

Ertz understands that this time a year is a place where the Red Stars have found themselves before, but recognizes that this year feels different.

“This year has been real unique because towards the end of other years we were really faced with a lot of adversity, injuries, where people were just pushing through the end of the year. Whereas this year, this is the first year where we have risen, rather than trying to keep people healthy and [go] 90 minutes.”

Ertz continued: “We had a ton of adversity in the first 3 months of the year with a lot of injuries so to kind of have everyone back and feel good and healthy going into the game obviously makes us feel confident as well, but the players that have come in have just elevated our standards and have helped a lot.”

Even with all the roster moves this season and the uncertainty that brings, each player found themselves playing a role on this team. Vanessa DiBernardo was a part of the 2014 Red Stars draft class with Ertz, and she echos the excitement around this team entering the semifinal.

“I think going every year going into this phase has been very different and I think this year it just feels a little bit more refreshing and exciting for us,” said DiBernardo. “This group is very lighthearted and we have a lot of fun on the field. I think that has really kept us going and it doesn’t feel like the end of the year for us, it feels like an exciting part of the year for us which it should be. It’s been great and we’re all super excited.”

Where We Last Saw Them

Chicago and North Carolina have some memorable matches over the last two seasons.

The most recent match-up between Chicago and North Carolina was back on August 10th where both teams played to a 1-1 draw. The Red Stars went down a goal in the first half after Crystal Dunn spun away from Casey Short, found Jessica McDonald with a cross into the box that then found the head of Debinha. Chicago came into the second half and battled back to equalize on a goal from Sam Kerr, earning a point on the evening and effectively kicking off the Red Stars playoff push.

Starting Lineup We’d Like To See

The roster for tonight’s semifinal is likely to be a familiar one from more recent matches, but that doesn’t change the overall feeling among the team. Head Coach Rory Dames has embraced the new energy.

“I think that we have players that haven’t been in the semifinals before, or maybe they haven’t been awhile. They bring a new excitement. Last year when we went it was the same group as before [...] I think the players and group that haven’t been here or haven’t been to the semifinal, including new coaches, has kind of been refreshing as staff.”

Here is who we want to see lineup tonight under all the lights.

Measure Our Time

Through all the build-up to this match, trying to monitor a hurricane, and then the league ultimately rescheduling and relocating the match, Chicago is staying focused on the task at hand while staying loose.

Ertz understands the significance of making it to this point, but still shares the excitement in the competition of it all with her teammates both long time and new.

“I think we’re really excited to kind of have that continuation of being in the playoffs. Obviously, the finals for any team is the ultimate goal— but huge props to the girls to making this happen four years in a row [. . .] I’m really proud of this group. We’re having a really fun year on and off the field and we’re just excited to go onto the semifinal.”

Having players like Rosie White and Brooke Elby as first year Red Stars, along with Stanton and Kerr, have added new energy surrounding the team this year. Many are eager to see a player like Kerr in the playoffs, including her teammates. DiBernardo welcomes the added enthusiasm.

“Having her - it’s ‘we just need one chance.’ She can really get that for us. So, it’s exciting to have her. I think she is super excited because she hasn’t been in the playoffs in awhile. It’s refreshing to have someone like her and Nikki and others that are new this year who haven’t been to the semifinals in a bit because its new and exciting and refreshing for them.”

And In The Morning, We’ll Climb So High

A season that began back in March has now been narrowed down to 3 teams. Portland won their semifinal and await the winner of tonight’s match. If the Red Stars want to compete for a championship, they will have had to plan around a Category-4 hurricane and figuring out how to beat one of the best teams in NWSL history.

Respectfully, Ertz acknowledges the brilliant season the Courage have had, but says her team aren’t intimidated.

“I think they’re a very good team and they know where they’re good at and they can attack you in many ways, and we’re excited to just kind of have everyone on our team back to be able to play them and kind of show them we’re a good team as well. We’re really looking forward to the challenge.”

Vision and confidence aren’t lacking in this Red Stars team as they prepare to take to the pitch tonight. They are motivated at the idea of competing for a Championship to bring back home to Chicago.

“For most of us, a huge core of the group, [Chicago] has been their only home in the NWSL,” said Ertz. “I think for us, we’ve been through so much this year that it would be great to obviously bring it back to the city of Chicago, everyone that’s here, and our fans as well.”

That’s been Rory Dames’ motto all year. Trust The Process.

“We stuck with it when we lost players and when we weren’t necessarily getting results,” said Dames. “Everybody involved, always saw a bigger picture as to what we could be as opposed to what we were at the time.”

“When your most influential players are bought in and 100 percent invested into the vision— it’s difficult for anyone else not to be. Last year, we were limping into the playoffs. We’re not limping into the game this year, physically or mentally.“

Keys To The Match

Learning when and where to risk it: Last year’s semifinal left something to be desired as Chicago looked fatigued and, at critical moments, timid. Their 4-4-2 diamond made the Red Stars one of the most organized squads in the league— and one of the most predictable. This year, the midfield is one of the strongest Chicago has ever had. They will need to have an impact in this game in limiting the Courage’s attack.

From the inside: Closing down and breaking lines for North Carolina will be crucial. Players like Morgan Brian will be influential in her ability to disrupt pressure lower in the field, and Danielle Colaprico has been able to play alongside and off of that with Ertz now in the backline.

If you’ve ever been mighty: Sam Kerr is golden, but she’s not the only one in boots. Collective build-up among Gilliland and Mautz, or Nagasato and DiBernardo will allow Kerr to be even more lethal.

Players To Watch

North Carolina Courage: Crystal Dunn is the chaos waiting to be unleashed, but Jessica McDonald is crossing the ball. Look for both players to be active in the attack.

Chicago Red Stars: Sam Kerr is in the NWSL playoffs. Pay attention. Yuki Nagasato is the real MVP, respect her.

How To Watch

Kickoff: Tuesday, September 18, at 8pm CT at Providence Park in Portland, Oregon

TV: ESPNnews | WatchESPN, ESPN+

Final Thoughts

Well leave it to DiBernardo for this one:

“Bringing a championship home to Chicago would mean a lot to this team, the city, and the fans that come to the game. Being able to be [a Red Star] and play in front of my hometown, family, and friends— [I want to] bring home something for them.”