NC Courage starting XI: Steph Labbe, Abby Erceg, Abby Dahlkemper, Jaelene Hinkle, Heather O’Reilly, Sam Mewis, Denise O’Sullivan, Debinha, Lynn Williams, Jess McDonald, Crystal Dunn
Chicago Red Stars starting XI: Alyssa Naeher, Casey Short, Julie Ertz, Katie Naughton, Sarah Gorden, Danielle Colaprico, Morgan Brian, Vanessa DiBernardo, Savannah McCaskill, Yuki Nagasato, Sam Kerr
Lunchtime showers gave way to a sunny day in Cary, a blanket of mugginess settling softly over the city. It was just short of oppressive at WakeMed Soccer Park, but the crowd was in good spirits, possibly buoyed by beating the weather. It was an official sellout, with tkcrowd announced.
Paul Riley came out riding hell for leather as usual with his lineup, uncaring that Chicago was dealing with late roster woes, center back Tierna Davidson ruled out with a right ankle injury. Still, it was a testament to the good core Rory Dames has spent years building that Katie Naughton wasn’t obviously incongruent slipping into the starting XI. That doesn’t mean the Red Stars didn’t sorely miss Davidson, as became rapidly evident within the first 20 minutes of the game.
It took all of four minutes for the Courage to start the scoring. Chicago had looked good up until that point, for all that those three minutes and change were worth. The Courage took the ball and executed their usual rapidfire advance up the field, with Lynn Williams arrowing through the heart of Chicago and drawing defenders central. She brought Jess McDonald and Debinha with her, McDonald swimming in space out wide and able to pick out Debinha with her ball in. As Sarah Gorden failed to clear the ball with her first touch, Debinha got far too many bites at the apple and eventually powered it through the scrum of bodies and into the goal.
Chicago looked like they were trying to stick to their game plan a little longer, switching fields looking for space. Casey Short put in a nice long ball to Kerr in the box searching for her head, but Kerr had her usual retinue of Courage guards hovering around her, forcing the ball away. Those long balls to Kerr went from optimistic to carrying a whiff of desperation as the half went on.
Chicago also tried to step up in the midfield, with multiple players battling the Courage. If they’d been able to keep it up, that probably would have helped stabilize the game for them, but their midfield looked listless and uninspired, bowing before the pressure from Sam Mewis and Denise O’Sullivan.
The Courage doubled it in the 26’ as they attacked the face of goal, Lynn Williams’ looping horizontal ball finding McDonald’s head. McDonald headed it down past a scrambling Naeher to make it 2-0.
The Red Stars looked marginally better when they didn’t play panic ball to Kerr so much and Kerr held up play, allowing them to get numbers forward. Nagasato, McCaskill, and DiBernardo all moved into her orbit, giving her the room to drop and arrive late, looking for an opportunity on the ball.
Things took a turn for the worse as the half died down though. Casey Short asked Naeher to boot the ball out and then crouched in pain, requiring a trainer to come on. She resumed play after a short break, but Chicago hardly had a minute to sigh in relief before the Courage were back at it again. They scored their third in stoppage, with Mewis sending Chicago’s midfield retreating before her and putting the ball into Chicago’s defensive third. Crystal Dunn socked the goal away to pull NC even further ahead.
Strong Island represent! @crysdunn_19 battles in the box between a few Red Star defenders and pokes him goal 3️⃣ for @TheNCCourage.— NWSL (@NWSL) October 27, 2019
3-0 #NCvCHI | #NWSLChampionship pic.twitter.com/Z6j2Xeizgy
Chicago opened the second half brightly enough. There’s not much you can say to a team that’s being smothered and outclassed at every turn, but Chicago at least seemed determined to make a good go of it, particularly with Katie Johnson subbing on for Mccaskill. With Johnson to play off of, Kerr was getting more looks at the goal, although they still weren’t really improving elsewhere on the field. Still, Short was looking for Kerr in the box, and Sarah Gorden was trying to turn up the speed. Trying to beat the Courage with speed is a dicey proposition, though, and the Courage stifled balls in and broke out. Debinha was unrelenting in attacking the box, and Heather O’Reilly found the gas to push up and underlap her, creating just enough confusion for Debinha to poke a shot at the post.
Sam Mewis buttoned it up in the 61’. The Red Stars didn’t manage a proper clearance and the ball went out to Abby Dahlkemper, who as usual dropped a nice long ball on a dime for Mewis’ head. Naeher came off her line when perhaps she should have held fast and Mewis slipped the ball past her to make it 4-0.
That was all she wrote for the Red Stars, who didn’t lie down and roll ever, but were never looking like they might even salvage a goal for dignity’s sake. A fresh Kristen Hamilton subbing on in the 75’ just meant more opportunities for Williams to take stabs at the goal, splitting the Red Stars defense with the same energy level you’d expect of someone in the first 10 minutes.
Chicago had a late chance in the 87’ as Morgan Brian won a tussle with Zerboni and looked for Kerr far post, but by far the most exciting moment in the waning moments of the game was the substitution of O’Reilly. it marked the end of a long, prestigious career, and the stadium gave O’Reilly a standing ovation as she left the field for Cari Roccaro.
So goes another season for the heavyweight NC Courage, who are not unbeatable, but are damn near close to it. The Red Stars were always going to have a heavy task in front of them, and that was before Tierna Davidson got injured. This only becomes a problem if other teams accept it as an inevitability. Will they shrug and say ‘what can you do’ or will they put in the money and time and effort to be competitve?
All of that remains to be seen.