North Carolina Courage 1 Dunn 66’
Chicago Red Stars 1 Kerr 26’
In the past, the definition of “well” has included Alyssa Naeher turning into a superhuman to maintain a draw, the Red Stars surprising in close wins where North Carolina can’t live up to their potential, or close losses that still solidify Chicago’s place as the mostly likely opponent to clog up and break the unstoppable Courage down.
Tonight, in Cary (#drainagederby), the game had a little bit of everything. Naeher was in top form, Chicago kept the Courage from grasping opportunities, and if the game had ended in a loss? Everyone would’ve been very understanding.
From the announcement of the starting lineups, it was clear that Chicago was walking into a tough situation; the Courage mounted an impossibly talented starting XI at full strength, while the Red Stars put together what could generously be considered as close to where they would like to be. Casey Short was listed as unavailable due to a thigh injury, so slotting Sarah Gorden into her spot at right back and switching Arin Wright over to the left was a move that fans in Chicago saw quite a bit last year. Tierna Davidson and Katie Naughton solidifying as the center-back pairing was expected after preseason, but despite Davidson’s clear affinity to the role, this was her first start in the NWSL, this time against the best offense in the league.
In the midfield, the lingering injuries to Vanessa DiBernardo and Morgan Brian led to a middle three of Julie Ertz, Nikki Stanton, and Danny Colaprico (who for most of the match didn’t look at 100%). The front three were rounded out by Yuki Nagasato, Alyssa Mautz, and of course, Sam Kerr. Starting Mautz was interesting, with Katie Johnson available, but the Red Stars were sticking with the lakes that they are used to and were ready to gut this game out.
And guess what? They mostly did it! The match started with high intensity from the home side, with Chicago on their heels trying to hold their defensive shape together. In a weird sense, the way that North Carolina runs at the Red Stars defense is a pattern that they have learned to hold, over time. And throughout the match, the Courage didn’t do themselves many favors. While holding much of the possession, and getting end-line again and again, North Carolina struggled to come up with much offensive firepower that could be described as dangerous. The way the Courage shoot without prejudice plays intensely to Alyssa Naeher’s strengths as a keeper, and she showed authority in her box that the Red Stars are going to need against top teams.
All of which to say, Chicago didn’t look great compared to the aggressive home side early on, but boy, they sure got that goal. After a couple of looks in the midfield that showed more good ideas than strong accuracy on the ball, in the 26th minute Yuki Nagasato hit a perfectly weighted ball with Sam Kerr running in on goal, and Kerr calmly juked Stephanie Labbe to put the Red Stars into an unpredictable lead. The goal punished North Carolina more for messing around at the top of Chicago’s box than accurately reflected the run of play, but there it was. Chicago plays them well.
But we also know what Chicago does with the odd unpredictable lead. After the goal, the Red Stars switched into preservation mode, defending their way into halftime to have a chance to breathe and regroup. They did so successfully, but one had to think that the Courage were going to come back firing in the second half.
During the portion of the game where Chicago led, they played with a plan. They tried ideas in the midfield, didn’t sit off the ball quite as much, and found more time in North Carolina’s half. However, when the clock hit 60 minutes, and the Courage hit their witching hour, something was destined to give. Unsurprisingly, it was the 66th minute where something finally happened for Crystal Dunn, nutmegging Davidson off a throw in (when are clubs going to figure out how to defend those agains NC?) and getting the Courage’s equalizer.
After the Courage equalizer, the Red Stars fell into a mode that isn’t worrisome now, but should possibly be for later. After this many years, Chicago still plays like a team that concedes and then plays for the point. Which is an admirable and frequently rewarding impulse! But it’s not the genetic makeup of an NWSL champion. When you get sniped for a tie, you have to think you can still win, and while Chicago held on for a better result than many anticipated, they simply can not give up so easy. North Carolina is incredibly good, and showed so tonight despite their offensive issues, but the Red Stars are also very good, and should trust that.
Portland is next week. That’s a winnable game. Let’s all believe it now. Solid point.
On a personal note, I’m not sure there’s any soccer content that I enjoy more than writing these recaps. Happy to be back, and incredibly stoked for this season’s journey, whatever weird soccer occurs. Go Red Stars.
The Chicago Red Stars (0W 1D 1L, 1pt) will host their home debut next Saturday against the Portland Thorns.