North Carolina Courage 4-0 Chicago Red Stars
Before this match even started, my friend Carri turned to me and said, "This is either going into extra time or it's going to be a blowout. There is no in-between."
She was absolutely right.
The North Carolina Courage went into their third consecutive NWSL final as the most dominant and consistent team in the league, playing at home on the heels of a wild semifinal at home, with no major lineup changes, so the odds were certainly in their favor from the jump, snarky tweets about Paul Riley loving an underdog narrative notwithstanding. The Red Stars came in on a wave of momentum, six consecutive wins by confident performances, the announcement of Sam Kerr as the League MVP for 2019 and a 100-strong away support in Cary. They were, sadly, without centerback Tierna Davidson, who put in some strong performances alongside Julie Ertz toward the end of the season, but had suffered a sprained ankle in training.
After the pre-match pageantry, complete with ill-advised on-pitch pyro at the hottest part of the day in an extremely humid, swampy place, both sides came out firing. It's so easy to forget after the haze of four goals, but it was actually the Red Stars who got the first good look in this match, as Vanessa DiBernardo got a strong foot on an Abby Erceg deflection that Stephanie Labbé was just able to punch out of the corner. The Courage quickly responded with their first goal less than two minutes later on a brutally fast counterattack from the top three who have been their firepower all season – Lynn Williams to Jess McDonald to the Best XI Snub Heard 'Round the World, Debinha.
The next 10 minutes saw some more near misses from both sides. Alyssa Naeher came up big to save a ball from Williams (and even with four glaring concessions to the Courage, had multiple heroics on the day); Kerr found enough space to make a run and then rocketed it right into the arms of a waiting Labbé. The possession breakdown for this match is actually surprisingly even at nearly 50-50, which is wild considering how dominant the Courage looked, especially in midfield. In addition to winning the battles in midfield, their attack just looked and felt efficient. Lynn Williams out there making lung-busting runs, finding her targets and, in the 26th minute, capitalizing on a lack of pressure to lob one right at Jess McDonald's head for another goal. Twenty more minutes of frenetics, of shouting, of searing humidity and increasing desperation out of the Red Stars, and Crystal Dunn pushed past a scrum of falling defenders to net a third in the dying seconds of first-half stoppage.
At the start of the second half, Katie Johnson entered the match for Savannah McCaskill, and the Red Stars started to look more composed and cohesive as the second half wore on, threatening more in the Courage box. Casey Short and Kerr were able to put together some nice combination play, although the finishing just wasn't there. And then Sam Mewis, in the 61st minute, connected with an Abby Dahlkemper long ball for an arcing goal number four, which felt like the death knell, especially given the opportunities remaining on their bench. The Courage were able to bring on Kristen Hamilton and McCall Zerboni for fresh legs, which I realize is a deeply disturbing phrase even as I type it. Heather O'Reilly left the pitch for the final time as a player in the 89th minute to a breathless standing ovation, and two minutes later, the whole thing was over, and it was back-to-back titles for North Carolina.
What We Learned:
- If You've Lost Your Nerve, You've Lost the War: How many times have you heard some newspaper sports columnist in an ill-fitting suit cluck on about "acting like you've been there before"? The Chicago Red Stars were in their first championship match, on an extremely humid day, with their opponents maintaining home field advantage. And a team that had looked so confident in the last stretch of the season looked harried and, at times, desperate during the first half. Debinha's opening goal shook their confidence; they couldn't maintain possession. By the end of the first half, the camera was panning to Sam Kerr screaming at Savannah McCaskill for failing to connect a cross and Julie Ertz, the steadfast captain, shouting at, well, it looked like everyone. The Red Stars had a stronger second half, but nerves got the better of everyone in the first, and made recovery a much greater challenge. Their signature was under-proved, they came last in the technical and they couldn't pull it back in the showstopper.
- Sometimes, Doing the Same Thing Over and Over Again Just Works: The North Carolina Courage played this match pretty much the same way the North Carolina Courage have been playing all season: high pressure, relentless, unyielding attack, firepower from multiple angles. Not only did it work, it got them a four-goal shutout, and every other side in the NWSL is now tasked with solving the puzzle of countering it.
- Debinha: If we needed further confirmation that the NWSL Best XI was a load of hogwash in part due to the glaring omission of Debinha, she sure reminded us today. The Brazilian international continued her stellar season, beating the entire Red Stars backline and Alyssa Naeher, pushing relentlessly forward and nabbing another goal in just the fourth minute. And that little shrug celebration, as if to say, "I know I'm bad, the league knows I'm bad, where's my Best XI spot?" She was essential in the possession battle that significantly favored the Courage and was an engine in the attack all game, setting the tone and keeping it going until the very end. She was named the MVP of the Championship match, and it was more than well deserved.
- Denise O'Sullivan: Basically, the entire Courage midfield and attack could be contenders for this. Jessica McDonald linked up well with Lynn Williams and got an impressive header; Sam Mewis confidently maintained possession and netted a late goal. But the narrative loves an unsung hero, and Denise O'Sullivan has been the glue of the midfield all season. She helped maintain possession, orchestrate play and made Vanessa DiBernardo look fallible.
- Chicago Local 134: I'm a Red Stars homer, and in my brief tenure as your intrepid NWSL correspondent here, I've never been shy about it. But what the Red Stars away support brought to Cary this weekend was special – a road crew of 100 strong with banners, flags, thunderous voices and even a fleet of punny vehicles ("Roady Dames," "Michele Vanconcelos"). Even when their side was down four goals, you could still hear them loud and clear on the broadcast. I don't want to weigh every great atmosphere in terms of What It All Means for The Women's Game, so I'm not going to. But I'll say that people remember great soccer matches, regardless of nation or league or gender, not just because of what happens on the pitch, but because of the culture and atmosphere that it brings.
- My Chicago heart leapt at seeing multiple signs in the away section in solidarity with striking Chicago Public Schools teachers and support staff. "I believe that we will win" is more than an AO mantra.
- I know everyone says #NoPyroNoParty, but maybe not pyro directly on the pitch on an extremely humid and hot day right as the players are walking out? Naeher and Abby Erceg both looked visibly uncomfortable and agitated, and it potentially had an impact on the players' wellbeing. Casey Short told media after the match the combination triggered her asthma. Aesthetics are never worth the players’ health and safety.
- Congratulations to Katie Johnson, who made history yesterday as the first Mexican international to play in an NWSL final.
- Heather O'Reilly ends a 17-year career on a thunderous victory and exited the match in the dying minutes to a standing ovation.
- I thought it couldn’t get more heartbreaking than showing a close-up of an on-the-verge-of-tears Lindsey Horan last weekend, but then we saw a crying Alyssa Naeher. This was the match when I realized I would make a terrible spy, because all the enemy would have to do is show me footage of defeated footballers crying after a big loss and I'd reveal so many state secrets to make it stop.
Paul Riley will still probably find a way to spin back-to-back shields and titles into an underdog mentality for his side. Heather O'Reilly rides into the sunset on a high. The season is over and everyone looks ahead to gearing up for the draft in January, the official reign of Vlatko Andonovski, confirmation of a new expansion team in 2020 and a subsequent expansion draft, and every club will have to figure out what that means for their roster. Chicago will, if speculation is correct, have to ponder a future without League MVP Sam Kerr, as PSG and Chelsea are reportedly interested in the Australian star; and the NWSL will have to come up with real strategies (and dollars) to compete with European leagues for top talent.
And two absolutely dominant sides will learn from build on this season's results. The Courage have set themselves up well enough to have the word "dynasty" thrown around. The Red Stars a well-rounded, tight-knit roster built on hometown heroes like Casey Short, Vanessa DiBernardo, and Sarah Gorden, although questions of what that roster looks like next year with expansion will remain. Onward to next season.
(Photo: North Carolina Courage / Twitter)