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Give Her Flowers: Chicago Red Stars 3, North Carolina Courage 1, NWSL Game Recap

Chicago showed up with some everyday heroes, and took down a giant

Shaina Benhiyoun

Chicago Red Stars 3 (Kerr 13’, 93’) (Vasconcelos 40’)

North Carolina Courage 1 (Williams 33’)

Remember when I said back in week one that Chicago plays North Carolina well?

Well, North Carolina didn’t quite look like themselves, and the Red Stars could’ve tightened their work up a bit, but Chicago got the job done for the first time since 2017 and took down the Courage 3-1 on a dreary Sunday evening that nonetheless saw something kind of beautiful.

Michele Vasconcelos’s success has been a surprise this year even to those following the team, after a touch-and-go rookie season after coming back from pregnancy in 2018. But in the retrospective of this week, her breakout shouldn’t be so surprising, and maybe we should’ve looked harder into what she was taking on in coming back with as a new mother to a profession that doesn’t have the best track record in supporting the more nuanced off-the-field challenges.

We should’ve done better then, but wow what a treat it is to watch the story turn now. Vasconcelos got the start on Sunday evening in the place of the suspended Katie Johnson, her first of the season. Nikki Stanton then took the reins in the deeper lying role, pushing Yuki Nagasato forward and supporting Vanessa DiBernardo and Danny Colaprico, filling out the midfield. This midfield look might indicate what the team will consider going forward, with the injured Alyssa Mautz no longer an option up front or in the attacking midfield (and we wish her a speedy recovery).

Chicago did a pretty good job moving the ball in the first 15 minutes of the match, with DiBernardo proving to be an effective force in the No. 10 role, and she sent a beautiful ball up to Yuki Nagasato in the 13th minute, who sent another nice ball through to Sam Kerr who got the better of keeper Katelyn Rowland to put the Red Stars up 1-0.

The forward momentum was well needed, and North Carolina looked a bit shaken going down early, but that couldn’t keep Chicago from having the intensity turn off at odd moments. The Red Stars didn’t defend particularly well on set pieces, and after 10 minutes or so the Courage found themselves finding serious space. And when North Carolina attacks, in comes in waves, finally resulting in the equalizer from Lynn Williams in the 33rd minute, coming in completely unmarked to finish a Merritt Mathias cross.

This is where the Courage tend to take over. Waves of pressure don’t let up, and a 1-0 lead can turn into a multiple goal deficit without teams really realizing it. This North Carolina team didn’t quite have that bite in them on Sunday, and that gave Vasconcelos an opportunity to run.

In the 40th minute, the forward collected a nicely headed ball from Kerr, and dribbled toward the Courage defense. She made her way around a number of defenders and slotted the ball in on a difficult finish to put Chicago up 2-1 before the half. Her confidence building this season, from a goal against Portland, an assist against Reign FC, and now a start and a goal against North Carolina puts her in the top tiers of Chicago’s depth. Perhaps instead of asking why it was taking her so long to get to this point, we should have been patient enough to understand what she could bring when she felt ready.

The second half showed the Red Stars doing a lot of defending, and Emily Boyd saw quite a bit of the ball. Chicago also had the benefit of some more uncharacteristic play from the Courage, who couldn’t find ways to punish mistakes or capitalize on their press, which on its own wasn’t as unrelenting as in games past. While it was clear that North Carolina could equalize at any time, the Red Stars had to feel like they had the ability to grind out out the close win.

However, the win didn’t end up all that close, when Sam Kerr got her first well-hit goal in a number of weeks, drilling a 93rd minute icing of the match that gave a punctuation to the performance (and Kerr’s first back flip in a Chicago uniform - a beautiful sight before she leaves for the World Cup). With the air letting out of the match, other fun end-of-game moments saw Maria Sanchez getting her first minutes of her professional career and immediately showing off footwork that duped McCall Zerboni a number of times. Boyd also had a confident match, forcing Williams to chase her into handling the ball, and staying calm in a few wild moments in front of goal.

I keep listing names because the whole team did nice work, which is what it takes to get a result against North Carolina. Sarah Gorden was relied upon to hold down the defense and did so admirably, Casey Short’s one-on-one defending was essential, Nikki Stanton was brought in to boss around the middle of the park and did so with confidence. One of the things Chicago’s depth players have that other teams don’t just yet is they’ve been here before, and they know their roles so deeply that they don’t get easily spooked. I love it when Chicago plays North Carolina. I think they do too.

The Chicago Red Stars (2-1-2) will travel to face the league-leading Houston Dash (3-1-1) on Sunday, May 19th at 5pm CT.