To beat the defending champion North Carolina Courage, a team needs to do two things well: put forth a stellar defensive effort, and take advantage of the few goal scoring opportunities that come.
For 80 minutes, the Chicago Red Stars took care of the first part, only to be undone on header off the underside of the bar from New Zealand international Abby Erceg, from a ball floated to the back post by Jaelene Daniels.
As for the scoring, the Red Stars came up empty, extending their scoring drought to 209 minutes in a 1-0 defeat in their third game of pool play of the NWSL Challenge Cup.
Despite only having one goal through three matches, Morgan Gautrat isn’t worried.
“I think the goals will come,” Gautrat said after the match. “We have put a lot of new players on the field, and I think getting into the final third and having ideas and being creative is kind of the last thing that comes for teams. And we have the players and I think we did a lot better today.”
The first 20 minutes of the match saw a lot of pressure from the Courage through their left side of Daniels, Debinha and Lynn Williams. In just her second professional match, outside back Bianca St. Georges was up to the challenge—with some help from USWNT staples Julie Ertz and Alyssa Naeher.
“Bianca specifically, I think it took her probably 15 or 20 minutes to settle into the game, but I thought once she settled into the game, you know she did great,” Red Stars Head Coach Rory Dames said after the match. “It’s the second game she’s played in two years and she’s basically playing against North Carolina’s first group, minus maybe the right back and Jess.
“If they wanted to attack Bianca’s side, that’s ok because we like attacking that side too. We feel we can have success on that side of the field against them, and I thought we did. We just needed to be better when we got into the final third.”
Danny Colaprico started the match in midfield, allowing Ertz to slide to center back. This helped the Red Stars to be organized defensively, often keeping 11 behind the ball, effectively forcing North Carolina to settle for less dangerous chances.
“I think we were a bit more organized and prepared and especially defensively and middle spine and matching their box a bit,” Gautrat said. “I think we did a better job defending today and weathering that storm a bit. Obviously having everyone and Julie in the back line is so helpful for us.”
North Carolina Head Coach Paul Riley gave credit to the Red Stars defense as well.
“We just didn’t find any rhythm in the first half,” Riley said. “I don’t know if it was just due to the fact that we were a little off, but they were really good.”
Colaprico, who is still nursing an ankle injury that held her out of the first match of the tournament, put in a stout performance defensively.
“It’s been awesome to watch her come back from her injury, and to see her be on the field is awesome,” Gautrat said. “She’s such a big part of our team, and we need her at her best, and I think we will get her there by the end of this tournament.”
Despite giving up seven first half chances to North Carolina, Dames said the Red Stars created better scoring opportunities.
“I actually thought we had the two best chances of the first half,” Dames said.
We've got a potential @Verizon Save of the Match.@rowland_katelyn with a MASSIVE stop to keep the game tied— NWSL (@NWSL) July 5, 2020
0-0 | #NCvCHI
Tune in now on @CBSAllAccess and @Twitch.#NWSLChallengeCup pic.twitter.com/xidOHNHNPK
The first chance was in the 21st minute when Kealia Watt picked Abby Dahlkemper’s pocket near midfield and nearly put the Red Stars ahead. A yank of the shoulder by Dahlkemper slowed Watt just enough for Erceg to recover with a sliding challenge, causing Watt’s shot to be saved by Courage goalkeeper, Katelyn Rowland.
The other golden opportunity for Chicago in the first half was when Yuki Nagasato played through St. Georges, but the rookie fired her shot over the bar.
“I won’t talk about what happened to Kealia [Watt] when she got in, but that’s a decent chance and then Bianca got in on the right side and I think got a little bit excited and kicked it beyond the goal,” Dames said.
The opening 15 minutes of the second half looked a lot like the first half. The Red Stars were content to play compact defensively, getting numbers behind the ball and picking their spots carefully to counterattack.
That began to change in the 64th minute for the Red Stars, when Colaprico was replaced by game two Player of the Match, Savannah McCaskill. McCaskill’s inclusion into the game at the number 10 position put Chicago largely on the front foot, and forced North Carolina to do some extended defending.
“If I’m being honest, I thought outside of Sav [McCaskill], when the other players came off the bench, the game fell off completely,” Dames said.
The other players were the 80th minute subs of Michelle Vasconcelos, Katie Johnson, and Makenzy Doniak for Rachel Hill, Watt and Nagasato respectively.
Dames felt that potentially changed the outcome of the game.
“We wanted to get those three off at 80’. If we don’t take three off at 80’, we probably tie, maybe steal one on the counter. Hilly and Kealia started to find some space,” he said.
The goal scored by the Courage came off uncharacteristically poor defensive organization and marking for the Red Stars. Dames’ frustration was evident.
“We lost out on a tackle, then we gave the ball away,” he said. “That lead to the corner kick, and we got scored on within 45 seconds of subbing those three. So, on our team, when you get the opportunity to play, you actually have to come in and play.”
Off the short corner, there was no Chicago defender within 15 yards of Jaelene Daniels leaving her open to make a cross to the back post.
Not only was Erceg given a free header on the cross from Daniels, there were two other attackers that had slipped in behind the Red Stars’ back line.
After the goal, Dames took off St. Georges for Zoey Goralski, moving to a back three with Ertz moving forward. This lead to a few quality opportunities for North Carolina, but a nice save by Naeher and two shots launched over the bar by Lynn Williams in the final minutes kept the Red Stars within striking distance.
The Red Stars couldn’t find the equalizer, but Ertz was still encouraged.
“We’ve learned a lot in just because we haven’t had that long of a pre-season, it’s been nice to kind of build into it from the first game, second game now third game, so it does feel like we are making gains each game, which is the most important for us,” Ertz said.
Riley agrees, and believes he may not be done with the Red Stars in the Challenge Cup.
“I watched them last weekend and they were much much better this weekend,” Riley said. “And they’ll get much better as the tournament goes on. And make no mistake, they’ll be knocking on the door at the end of this tournament for sure.”
Even Dames thought there were some positives to carry forward.
“I think we can certainly do better than what we did, but for where we are and what we were trying to get out of the game, I’m pleased,” Dames said.
The defeat by the Red Stars leaves them with two loses and a draw in the NWSL Challenge Cup, while the Courage moved to 3-0 with the victory.
On deck for Chicago, a needed break after three games in eight days. They will meet the host, Utah Royals on Sunday, July 12—and Dames said that’s when we’ll finally get a look at what he believes is his best eleven.
“We said the fourth game would be a game where we evaluate what’s gone on in the time we’ve been here, and put out a group that we thought earned the right to be on the field and we will certainly do that in the next game,” Dames said.