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NWSL semifinal: Chicago Red Stars hold strong against Portland Thorns

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Thorns? U ok?

North Carolina Courage v Chicago Red Stars Photo by Daniela Porcelli/Getty Images

Chicago starting XI: Alyssa Naeher, Casey Short, Tierna Davidson, Sarah Gorden, Morgan Brian, Danny Colaprico, Vanessa DiBernardo, Yuki Nagasato, Sam Kerr, Savannah McCaskill

Portland starting XI: Adrianna Franch, Meghan Klingenberg, Emily Menges, Emily Sonnett, Kat Reynolds, Dagny Brynjarsdottir, Lindsey Horan, Elizabeth Ball, Andressinha, Tobin Heath, Christine Sinclair

Before this semifinal, most people would have said the Chicago Red Stars were coming into the game with more momentum. That assertion held up as they opened up the scoring very quickly through Sam Kerr and Yuki Nagasato in the 8’. Nagasato’s gorgeous ball completely bypassed at least five thorns and picked out Kerr on the run.

The Thorns tried to rally to a certain extent. Tobin Heath was working overtime trying to pull Chicago apart and create some space for her teammates, but as has been a bad habit of hers this season, she simply ended up cornered, which combined with not enough players making good runs off of her for plenty of Red Stars turnovers and restarts from their defensive end.

The Red Stars continued to add to numbers forward through their fullbacks, though this time hitting the Thorns with a one-two punch of being able to push up through Short and Gorden. Gorden in particular was playing lights-out in the first half, winning her one-v-ones and creating danger from wide. The Thorns tried to reset through Lindsey Horan, getting her to slow the tempo and face up to goal, but she kept coming up against a wall of low movement and closed off passing lanes. Chicago was also on high alert, reading the Thorns’ balls through midfield and pouncing to try and start some quick counters.

The Thorns also tried to dump a couple of balls over for Sinclair as the highest attacker, but more often than not Tierna Davidson would be there first to clear it out. At times Sinclair tried to tee up Heath, but the Red Stars defensive unit was like a thicket of brambles tangling up every single look at goal.

In the second half, the Thorns tried to put some pep in their attack by bringing on Hayley Raso for Elizabeth Ball and she did spark them for a short while. Raso helped play provider to Sinclair, Heath, and Horan, and for a minute it looked like they had picked up their movement in the box while Raso took over that wide space on the right, even outright torching Short and turning the corner on her. But Chicago continued smothering every single Thorns look at goal, or Alyssa Naeher was there to deflect the ball away in the air.

The Thorns again tried to add spark to their lineup with the substitution of Andressinha for Midge Purce in the 67’, with Purce pushing up into the 9 and Sinclair dropping below her into the role she played for most of the season as an attacking midfielder. Sinclair kept looking for her teammates, correctly reading off Heath several times - but that pesky Chicago defense. And if it wasn’t the defense, it was the midfield, as Portland gave way before Morgan Brian.

Mark Parsons kept pressing the issue as he put Caitlin Foord on for Klingenberg in the 81’ and moved the team into a 3-5-2 with Raso and Heath really trying to push the issue higher up the field. Chicago turtled up somewhat with defensive sub Katie Naughton dropping out of the middle and shoring up the back line. Portland scrambled late for the net, but Chicago stayed strong and made one last dash for the Thorns goal in stoppage, with Nagasato simply beating her defender in the corner and picking out Kerr. Sonnett, who was watching the passing channel, somehow also was not able to cover the channel and Nagasato’s pass found Kerr, who picked out some space to set herself up with a one-on-one shot at Franch. Franch’s superb reaction tipped the ball wide but it was somewhat emblematic of the larger game, with the Thorns looking like they knew what they were supposed to do, then not doing it at all. The Red Stars ended the game with 1-0 win.

It’s a sweet victory for Chicago, who have somehow never been to an NWSL championship. They’ve been one of the teams to beat this season, though, building and building, sometimes faltering, but correcting their mistakes. They’re still the underdogs - anyone would be against the Courage machine - but it’s anyone’s guess as to who will take home the trophy next Sunday.