The Chicago Red Stars and the North Carolina Courage face off in the 2018 NWSL Playoff semifinals tonight, with the winner going on to face the Portland Thorns in the NWSL Championship Final.
To help us out with more insight into tonight’s match, we asked Aaron Bellamy of Dirty South Soccer to help us out.
HTIOT: How much scarier are the Red Stars this year than last, considering all the changes they made over the season?
DSS: The Red Stars are much scarier from an offensive perspective. With all due respect to Christen Press, Sam Kerr is the best striker in the world and was a major upgrade for Chicago. The pairing of Press and Jenn Hoy can’t hold a candle to Kerr and Yuki Nagasato. Those two are such different players, but they combine so well offensively.
The addition of Morgan Brian is looking like a good move that will add some talent to the midfield, but I feel comforted by the fact that Julie Ertz is going to be on the back line. The switch from Sofie Huerta in 2017 to Alyssa Mautz in 2018 feels like a lateral move offensively. Mautz has been good this year, but Huerta was also quite good.
So maybe 25% scarier? The addition of Kerr was pretty huge, and I would be happy to concede just one goal in this match.
HTIOT: Do you think the re-scheduling of the match is actually going to make a difference in NC’s perseverance, and how do you think their elevated mental game has helped them this year?
DSS: I think the change of venue is a significant disadvantage for the Courage, but I don’t think it will affect their perseverance. Portland is a pretty hostile environment for the Courage, and the field turf instead of grass. The Courage beat Portland 4-1 in their only match at Providence Park this year, so they can clearly deal with a hostile crowd. I hope that they use the move as motivation, but the difference between playing at home and flying from NC to OR is definitely a factor.
As for mental toughness, there’s no team in the league that believes more fully that they should win every game. Just look at what they did in the ICC Tournament missing Zerboni, Mewis, Dahlkemper, Mathias, and Dunn. Paul Riley is a big part of their mentality. Even when he should probably keep his mouth shut, he goes to bat for his players, no matter what. Knowing that everyone on the pitch and the staff has your back is a huge motivation for the players.
It’s also really easy to be mentally strong when you’ve come through in the clutch so many times. The Courage were 60 seconds from getting a 0-0 draw at home against Sky Blue FC in the second game of the season, but in the 92nd minute Jaelene Hinkle played a long ball to Jess McDonald who beat Kailen Sheridan. The next week in Washington they went down 1-0 in the 3rd minute, but they went on to win 4-2. The were losing to Seattle in Seattle twice this year, but they won the first one 4-1 and drew the second one. They believe, no matter what the scoreline is, that they can win the match, and that mental fortitude has dug them out of a lot of holes this season.
HTIOT: What’s the element of the Courage’s style that you think people haven’t talked enough about this year?
DSS: It’s hard to pick something that hasn’t been talked about, but I’d say it’s their disciplined flexibility. Coach Riley does an outstanding job of explaining the exact responsibilities of every player in the position they play, but the system also allows players to improvise while still being covered against counter-attacks.
If you watch the Courage build their attack, they have set overlapping systems that are mirrored on both wings. The fullbacks set up in a certain position to receive a pass every time, the holding midfielders set up to receive a pass in the same place every time, etc. Then, once the first outlet pass is made, every player knows exactly where their next move is. Mathias knows that when the ball gets played inside, she runs to a certain place to become available, or, if she receives the pass, she knows exactly where her outlets will be. This gives the Courage a blistering transition from defense to offense that catches a lot of teams off guard.
DSS: Last season Chicago reinvented Julie Ertz as a midfielder which Jill Ellis adopted. Then this year you moved her back to CB. How do you feel about the change in position and Ertz’s impact on the season so far?
HTIOT: It was a move made out of necessity, but one that has paid off, both in 2017 as a DM and in 2018 as CB. However, here’s a take, Julie Ertz is a better center back then defensive mid. With the departure of Sam Johnson and the arrival of Morgan Brian, it changed how the team lined up on the pitch.
Having to shape a midfield of 3-ish players with 4 to 6 options was always going to be difficult and have someone out of place. From a club perspective, her return to the backline has allowed for a more cohesive midfield for Chicago down the stretch of their season. In locking up things on defense for the Red Stars, you see the best players in their best positions on the pitch all at once, playing some of their best soccer this season.
DSS: During the offseason you effectively traded Sam Kerr for Christen Press. How do you feel that trade has worked out for the Red Stars?
HTIOT: Full disclosure, not seeing Christen Press in the postseason is truly weird, and there have been many times this season where I wondered what Press would like in a team with a healthy Nagasato and Brian.
But since the trade, Sam Kerr coming to Chicago has brought a different energy to the team. It is visible and palpable at times on the pitch. If the measurement is the Red Stars getting into the final, the jury is still out. But if the measurement is goals? Mission Over Accomplished.
DSS: With so many changes happening during the year (Kerr, Ertz, Short, and DiBernardo starting away from the team, trading away Huerta and Johnson during the season), do you worry about the chemistry of the Red Stars in this match?
HTIOT: In terms of roles on the field? Not necessarily. I think the reshuffling of the roster has actually solidified where everyone is best used (Ertz in defense, DiBernardo drifting on the left, etc), without feeling like Chicago is shoving players into a system in order to get the highest amount of talent on the field. But I do think it’s worth noting that even though the Red Stars have now fine-tuned their style of play, they have fewer reps than a team like North Carolina in actually seeing how that plays out in games. It felt sometimes like Chicago went through two or three pre-seasons this year, and though the final run of games against top opposition in the regular season helped quite a bit, I’m not sure the Red Stars would quite consider themselves to be operating like clockwork just yet. This semi-final would be a great opportunity for them to start.
DSS: Outside of Kerr, Ertz, and Naeher, most of the Chicago players aren’t well known outside of Chicago circles. Who is the underrated player that the Courage should look out for?
HTIOT: In the last meeting of these two teams (that ended in a 1-1 draw), the coherence in the Chicago midfield was key to giving the Red Stars chances against a very dynamic Courage back-line, so I’m tempted to defer to their importance on Tuesday night. However, I’m going to fight that impulse and go with Julie Ertz’s center-back partner, Katie Naughton.
At her best, Naughton is one of the best centerbacks in the league, and she is going to be instrumental in holding North Carolina’s offense to as few scoring opportunities as possible, and she’s shown in recent months that she has the ability to do so. She’s also a target on Red Stars set pieces that could go unnoticed if the Courage get too wrapped up in marking Ertz. If Chicago is going to be able to stay in this game, Naughton is going to have to hold it down, and North Carolina should be wary of her ability to do so.