North Carolina Courage 2 McDonald 5’, Mewis 86’
Well, here it is. This is how a season ends.
Chicago probably played their most complete game against the North Carolina Courage all year tonight, past results non-withstanding, and it was just enough to only lose 2-0 to a team that continues to boggle the mind with their dominance. The technical hosts came in hot, with some disagreement that Hurricane Florence should’ve seen the match moved at all, but everyone was mostly relieved that the match was finally being played.
Perhaps because of the long wait, the game started incredibly quickly and didn’t let up until deep into the second half. Right from kickoff, North Carolina were out for blood, and they turned Chicago on their heads within the first five minutes. Crystal Dunn torched Katie Naughton to slip a ball in through the stretched defense, and Jessica McDonald made Julie Ertz look foolish in a foot-race that ended with the striker shooting far post past Alyssa Naeher to put the Shield winners up 1-0 before the game had even reached the six minute mark.
Sam Kerr almost equalized in the eighth minute, off a turnover in front of the Courage’s goal, but the shot went off the post. She also had a chance in the 33rd that didn’t land on her foot in a way to make it a dangerous shot.
At the end of the first half, the Red Stars had pulled it together, and played themselves into the match. But the writing seemed to be on the wall. Chicago had the advantage in possession, pass completion, and total passes, but they also looked lucky to only be down a goal going into halftime. They also had Naeher limping throughout much of the match, and Kerr looking frustrated after being forced deep to receive service.
These are the things the North Carolina Courage can do to a team, and the game got harder to watch as the match went on. In the 66th, Kerr had a shot at a point-blank header but the cross was just a few inches too high to reach her head. And in the 86th, the game effectively ended.
North Carolina was bouncing the ball around Chicago’s box after a Danny Colaprico pass was broken up by the center referee being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And Sam Mewis topped off a stellar game by sending a rocket into Chicago’s net from distance. That ball was unsaveable (and probably had a few loose stitches for its troubles), and the Red Stars’ season ticked away with the rest of the game-clock.
In the end, tiny things sunk this game, as they were perhaps always destined to do. Chicago is so good at overcoming adversity, but you can’t hit the post against North Carolina. Not even once. Your crosses can’t be too high, your tackles can’t be too frustrated. And even if you’re fast enough, if you’ve started running with them you’ve already lost.
The game-plan worked, the style was good, and that’s it. 2-0.
It might be naive to consider this match a variance in Chicago’s post-season futility, but our coverage this year has been nothing if not defiant. The Red Stars played really well tonight, but maybe it was a mistake to think that all the positive vibes in the world could hold up against possibly the greatest American club soccer team of all time.
And if this season has taught us anything, it’s that nothing is guaranteed, especially going into a World Cup year where the international stage takes obvious precedent. I hope everyone involved in this club wants to come back next year, but I understand if they can’t. An NWSL team is a fragile thing, despite what North Carolina seems to exemplify, and it’s not easy to look at an uncertain future.
But if it’s a dubious distinction to go out like this every year, it’s also a strange honor to be this consistently disappointed. Despite all the turnover, this team makes an honest run of it every time, and that’s something to be proud of. But I don’t think that’s even what I’m talking about. Women’s soccer used to be something with two shots at international glory every four years, and excruciating gaps in-between. To have this game hurt this badly, but with the continuous promise of next year, is a privilege that I don’t take for granted.
And when Chicago does finally win the whole damn thing, which they will, it’s going to feel all the more amazing for it. That’s the final word on that.