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North Carolina Courage 4, Chicago Red Stars 0: What We Learned

A final look at a disappointing championship game— and the incredible season that preceded it

Provided by: Chicago Red Stars | Credit: ISI Photos

The Chicago Red Stars season concluded last Sunday when they fell 4-0 in the NWSL Championship Final. It was, without a doubt, not the way that the team wanted their year to end. But what came out of this season probably can’t be measured by what was in between the lines on that day. Instead, what rose up and out over this entire season might be what was the greater legacy that is left behind by this team for it’s fans and the city it represents.

Here’s some things we learned from the Championship final, the season, and the players.

Even The Best Laid Plans Result In Your Worst Day

The Red Stars advanced from their semifinal having faced a slumping Portland Thorns FC squad. While reactions from that semifinal post game were joyful, they were also grounded in reality. The Red Stars felt the soccer they played on that day wasn’t exactly the best example of what they’re capable of. If they were going to beat a dynasty of a team in the North Carolina Courage, they had to be better than the sum of their semifinal parts.

Yet as Chicago prepared to participate in their first ever NWSL Championship Final, the team was suddenly forced to make adjustments after Tierna Davidson went out with a high ankle sprain just days before the game. Any plans of seeing Julie Ertz in the midfield went out the window, as Rory Dames hinted to in a coaches conference call, along with any potential formation changes for Chicago to challenge Paul Riley’s infamous box midfield.

It meant playing in a low block, lining up in a 4-3-3, trying to possess and make the most of their opportunities when they came. This approach had worked for the Red Stars in the past, but in the Championship they just couldn’t withstand a Courage team firing on all cylinders.

This was definitely a case of a plan not surviving contact with the enemy. Whatever the Red Stars had in mind with their gameplan, it all evaporated within the first four minutes of the match. The defensive shape for the Red Stars would bend and eventually break, along with what was left of their mental game; the Courage were relentless until their second goal in the 26th minute.

After some more disjointed passes and failure to establish any connecting play, things came to a head in the 40th minute when Sam Kerr publicly expressed frustration at Savannah McCaskill, who in turn appeared to shake off the star striker’s vocal concerns. For a team that got to where they were in large part due to team chemistry and group mentality, this rare heated exchange between teammates belied how bad things had turned— and how much uglier it would get before the end.

And it did indeed get uglier. A third goal in first half stoppage time. A fourth goal right on the hour mark. Relentless pressure from North Carolina. All added up to leave the Red Stars’ historic season in tatters. Aside from a prevailing feeling of numbness, the game turned out to be quite revealing; for all that this Chicago squad had accomplished, it was clear that they still had a long way to go.

Yet amidst the chaos and calamity, there were small moments that illustrated why the Red Stars deserved to be in this Final. Katie Johnson came on to start the second half and made an immediate impact, giving a performance that made Kerr applaud her on the pitch. Ertz put on a heroic performance at centerback for 90 minutes. Casey Short literally sacrificed her lungs for this team— having suffered an asthma attack as a result of high humidity and lingering pyrotechnic smoke— and very nearly got Chicago a late consolation goal.

Lopsided result notwithstanding, the fans kept believing. There was still a feeling that one more brilliant Sam Kerr goal could come at any moment. It wouldn’t have changed the result, but you could sense it in the realm of possibility.

This team accomplished more than its predecessors, and in moving forward have certainly left their mark in Red Stars history.

This Was The Greatest Red Stars Team Ever Assembled

Even with the disappointing end to the season, the 2019 squad was the best Red Stars team ever. This was a team built to compete all season, and the payoff was the most recorded wins in a season, the most goals scored, the longest win streaks in franchise history. And they finally got over their semifinal hump and booked a trip to the Championship Final.

Kerr scored 18 goals this year, winning both the league Golden Boot and MVP awards. She also served up assists and some clutch defending. Short made history by earning Team Of The Month honors every month this season. Sarah Gorden emerged as a force to be reckoned with on the backline. Morgan Brian didn’t just fix some long-standing problems for Chicago’s midfield— she changed how the team functioned in the center of the park. And of course, Yuki Nagasato’s Cool Factor on and off the pitch was undeniable.

Five Red Stars players went to the World Cup this summer, and four of them came back as champions. Attendance records were set. The supporter culture around the team grew thanks to the tireless efforts of, and investment from, Chicago Local 134 and their budding partnerships with Chicago Fire supporters groups Red Line SG and Black Fires.

Given everything surrounding this team— the talent, the good vibes, the sprinkling of fairy dust— it’s difficult to grasp that the season is over, and that it ended the way it did.

With the other professional soccer team in Chicago moving to re-imagine and re-establish themselves, the Red Stars reminded everybody of who they were and what they’re about. The city became aware of what the most loyal supporters already knew— this team has Chicago in its blood, written across their hearts and on their shoulders, and you feel that at every single home game.

Now What?

Big changes are on the horizon for the league, and 2020 is already starting to take shape.

Portland telegraphed the start of multi-year contracts for NWSL players when they announced that Ellie Carpenter had committed her future to the Thorns. The league announced a new expansion team for Louisville set to debut in 2021, and there are rumors heating up that the 2020 season will feature at least one new club.

Even without the rumors surrounding Sam Kerr’s future, league expansion could very well shake up the Red Stars organization. Who will emerge as future leaders in the squad? Will the Red Stars’ style of play evolve to meet these new challenges? Or will they continue to rely on a lone star striker and stalwart defending?

The offseason is always unpredictable, and the only constant is change. This team will look very different in 2020. Before the news starts pouring out, it’s important to recognize what the Red Stars achieved this year and how far they’ve come— the club, the supporters, and especially the players. Whatever comes next, this 2019 team was legendary.