North Carolina Courage Vs. Chicago Red Stars: What You Need To Know, How To Watch Second NWSL Semifinal

The two teams go head-to-head for a spot in the NWSL final to take on the Portland Thorns.

Top-seeded North Carolina Courage’s match against fourth-place Chicago Red Stars was originally slated for this past Sunday in Cary, North Carolina. However, with the anticipation of Hurricane Florence’s landing in the Southeast, the game was rescheduled for Tuesday and will take place on neutral ground in Portland. Here’s what you need to know: 

Second NWSL Semifinal: North Carolina Courage vs. Chicago Red Stars 

When: Tuesday, September 18 at 9 p.m. ET

How to Watch: Lifetime (U.S.) | NWSLsoccer.com, NWSL app

North Carolina Courage

How They Got Here

The North Carolina Courage ran rampant this season in the NWSL, smashing club, league and U.S. women’s professional soccer records left and right. They clinched the Shield, awarded to the team with the best regular season record, wayyy back on August 5. Their 17-1-6 record, 53 goals for (best in league) and 17 goals against (best in league) is nothing short of outstanding and the team in its first two years of existence has already made a name for itself as the heavy hitter everyone wants to beat.

This historic season for the Courage has also been highlighted by an ICC Championship, a tournament in which they got to play a few of Europe’s best sides and knocked off Champions League winner Olympique Lyon in the final.

Despite their dominance, the Courage it seems could be haunted by the fact that has loomed over every other Shield winner: In the league’s six seasons, no Shield-winning team has won the NWSL Championship. Last year, the NC Courage lost 1-0 to Portland in the final.

This North Carolina side has made a habit of rewriting the record books this year, so if there is any team that can squash the “Curse of the Shield Winner,” one has to think this is the team who can do it.

Key Players

Lynn Williams (14 goals, 5 assists), Crystal Dunn (8 goals, 5 assists), Jessica McDonald (7 goals, 8 assists)

What to Watch

Picking “key players” for this North Carolina side seems almost wrong. Head coach Paul Riley has built a well-oiled machine in Cary with every player knowing and mastering her specific role and responsibilities on the field in a way that has made their success what it is. From Katelyn Rowland in net to Lynn Williams up top, one simply gets the sense from watching this team that this is how soccer is meant to be played.

North Carolina's defense, spearheaded by New Zealand’s Abby Erceg and USWNT member Abby Dahlkemper, is undoubtedly the most solid in the league. To see Brazilian midfielder Debinha misplace a pass is like spotting a unicorn. Sam Mewis is only 25 but seems like a seasoned vet, having been a feature for the U.S. women for quite some time and both cleans up in the defense and sparks thing in the offense for North Carolina. The combination of McDonald, Dunn and Williams up top is almost unfair. McDonald was once the league’s all-time leading scorer (before Sam Kerr came along), Dunn was the 2015 NWSL MVP and Golden Boot winner and Lynn Williams picked up those same two honors the season after and is the league’s second joint top scorer this year.

All I can say about this North Carolina team is, sheesh.

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The team suffered a big blow in recent weeks, coming in the form of a season-ending injury to McCall Zerboni. The midfielder, who is the mitochondria to the cell that is North Carolina, broke her elbow while on national team duty. She leads the league in tackles won and one wonders how the Courage might fair without one of their most important and consistent players in the line up.

North Carolina relies on the constant, all-over-the park movement and high press of its center midfielders, so it will be interesting to see who (likely Heather O’Reilly) will step into that critical role in this high-stakes match.

It feels crazy to say considering she has 14 goals on the season, but Williams still is known to miss chances more than she should when the ball falls to her at the top of the box. Looking at other potential weak points, it has to be said that the loss of home-field advantage is a bit of a downer for North Carolina, which now has to deal with a cross-country flight and the stressors of travel. 

Chicago Red Stars

How They Got Here

The Chicago Red Stars had a very different journey to the postseason than their Tuesday opponents, but a strong push in the tail end of the season ensured that they were in good standing to clinch that final playoff spot. The Red Stars were battling it out with the Utah Royals for the coveted fourth place-finish in the final weeks and officially punched their ticket to the postseason with an emphatic 5-0 win against Sky Blue FC at Toyota Park on September 4.

One of the big talking points for Chicago heading into the season was its role in the center of that eyebrow-raising mega trade the saw Christen Press be loaded off to Houston (kinda …), Carli Lloyd move from Houston to Sky Blue and Sam Kerr from Sky Blue to Chicago. That drama is long behind them though, and the Red Stars looked solid and exciting in spurts throughout 2018, with talent and experience in positions all around the pitch. Their numbers have not been stellar this season — a 9-5-10 record, 38 goals for, 28 against — but, like an elite team should, it found a way to get the job done when it needed to as things got tight at the end.

This will be their fourth NWSL semifinal appearance in a row.

Key Players

Sam Kerr (16 goals, 4 assists), Yuki Nagasato (4 goals, 7 assists), Danielle Colaprico (1 goal, 4 assists)

Watch to Watch

Sam. Kerr.

FIFA’s snubbing of the two-time Golden Boot winner is a travesty as her ability to finish in every way, place, shape and form has made her one of the deadliest strikers (and if you ask me, the deadliest) in the women’s game.

It is hard to believe but the last time we saw Kerr in the NWSL playoffs was for the Western New York Flash in the NWSL’s inaugural season in 2013. She’s back in the postseason — hallelujah!

Though the striker is the one who often makes all the headlines, make no mistake, this Chicago team is way more than the Sam Kerr Show. Alongside Kerr, Yuki Nagasato has been serving up dimes day in and day out. Her vision and precision passing are so good that the Japanese international could probably notch an assist for Kerr with her eyes closed. And, of course, she has gotten in on the fun this season herself, scoring a handful this campaign.

The fact that I have rambled on for a couple paragraphs and have not mentioned the three World Cup winners in this team shows that Chicago is a force to be reckoned with that perhaps has been underestimated at times. Julie Ertz has been dominant in the defense and Alyssa Naher, who seems to be the USWNT’s first-choice keeper right now, lines up in net. Morgan Brian too is an asset. Dani Colaprico has had a fantastic season for the Red Stars and rightfully been named to the USWNT's provisional roster for the upcoming CONCACAF championship for her efforts. 

Though they have star power in the attack and defense, the Red Stars have had trouble putting teams away at times, having tallied a league-high 10 draws. They come into this game a bit bruised after a 2-1 loss to Utah. Again, in that game the Red Stars went up first thanks to a Sam Kerr goal. However, the visitors let the Royals get back into the game and assert themselves, eventually finding themselves on the wrong end of a comeback.

On Tuesday, they will be looking to break their own curse in toppling the formidable wall that has proven to be the semifinal. Four straight years Chicago has made the playoffs and for four straight years they have failed to make it to the final. That’s the kind of stat that has to make head coach Rory Dames (who has been in charge of Chicago since the beginning) toss and turn at night.

This semifinal match up against the Courage is in fact a replay of the No. 1 vs. No. 4 contest from last year in which the Red Stars lost a heartbreaker after a game-winning goal in the 90th minute. At least this time they will have the benefit of not playing in North Carolina.

Will this be the year they finally make it to the game for all the marbles? It won’t be an easy task considering the opponent, but they have the weapons in their arsenal to make it happen. 

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Prediction 

N.C. Courage 1 — Chicago Red Stars 1 (N.C. wins 2-1 in extra time)

The Red Stars were actually one of the two teams who were able to get points against the Courage this season, having held them to a 1-1 draw in two of their three match ups. I think it will play out similarly on Tuesday particularly considering the neutral ground they will be playing on. Though it’ll be even at the end of the 90 minutes, ultimately the NC Courage will pull away with this one and once again Chicago will bow out at the semifinal stage.

As much as there is to be excited about this Red Stars team and even though everybody loves a good underdog story (especially considering their history in the playoffs), it’s hard to imagine the Courage slipping up in this big moment considering their form all season. This will no doubt be a tough test for the Courage, particularly with Kerr in the attack, but North Carolina has been in this spot before and I believe have the tools to weather the storms they will face from the Red Stars. 

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