During the 2017 regular season, the Chicago Red Stars were the only team the North Carolina Courage could not solve, though they did beat them in the National Women’s Soccer League semi-final when it counted the most.
Going into their first meeting of the 2018 season, the Courage and Red Stars sat in first and second place in the NWSL standings. The Courage were coming off of a 2-0 road win at Houston last weekend, while the Red Stars came from behind to finish in a draw with the Washington Spirit.
Would North Carolina finally have the regular-season answer against Chicago?
The Red Stars went right at the Courage at the opening whistle, but NC’s counter-attack saw Lynn Williams’ header go just over the crossbar. A barrage of near-misses was one of the stories of the day: the other was the spectacular play of Alyssa Naeher in goal for Chicago.
Once the game settled in, the Courage turned in another powerful first half, running the Red Stars’ defense ragged. But Naeher was equal to the challenge time after time, turning away a screamer of a volley from McCall Zerboni in the 17th minute and in the 37th minute, she came out of her net to boldly challenge Crystal Dunn, taking the ball off of Dunn’s feet as she slid to the ground.
A problem that appeared to crop up again for the Courage was miscommunication between Sabrina D’Angelo and her back line. In the 25th minute, a miscue caused D’Angelo to have to slide tackle the ball but it went straight to a Red Stars player, however, the Courage managed to regain possession. There appeared to be another miscue later in the game when D’Angelo and Abby Erceg both went up for the ball and both missed, but North Carolina was able to recover.
It was a warm and somewhat muggy day in Cary, North Carolina, so the official called a water break around the 35th minute. The Red Stars came out of the water break energized and reorganized enough to get themselves on the scoreboard.
In the 37th minute, Chicago’s Sam Kerr challenged the Courage’s Abby Dahlkemper in the 18-yard box. The two battled deep into the penalty area before Kerr got off a half-volley from about ten yards out, which rolled just out of D’Angelo’s reach and into the net for the Kerr’s first goal for Chicago. In live play, and on replay, it appeared that D’Angelo may have been partially screened on the shot by Dahlkemper because her reaction to the shot seemed delayed.
The Courage didn’t let the late goal take them away from their game plan. They continued to pressure the Red Stars defense when Dunn let loose a low screamer in the 40th minute that went just wide to the right1. The teams went into halftime with Chicago up 1-0.
The second half was mostly a repeat of the first: North Carolina dominating the run of play, only to find frustration at the Chicago goal. In the 49th minute, the Courage started a gorgeous run down the left side of the field when Denise O’Sullivan passed the ball to Williams, who touch-passed it to Debinha who then tapped it right to Dunn’s feet, but her shot went straight to Naeher.
The Red Stars were determined to hold onto their lead but didn’t shy away from a counter-attack when the opportunity presented itself. D’Angelo was called on to make a bold diving save on Summer Green’s run in the 52’.
Chicago head coach Rory Dames made the last of his substitutions in the 58’ when Taylor Comeau came on for Green and Danielle Colaprico replaced Lauren Kaskie (Arin Gilliland replaced Alyssa Mautz at halftime).
The Courage brought Jessica McDonald on for Sam Mewis in the 62’ and the fresh legs restarted North Carolina’s attack. In the 65’ Dunn had another rocket volley on goal, only to have Naeher swat it away for a corner.
The heat seemed to be making everyone cranky by the 71’ when referee Marco Vega showed Zerboni a yellow card, and two minutes later booked Chicago’s Michele Vasconcelos. Courage coach Paul Riley made his second substitution in the 79th minute, bringing Kristen Hamilton on for O’Sullivan, who once again turned in a solid, hard-working game.
North Carolina’s persistence finally paid off in the 83’ when an unmarked Erceg volleyed a pass off the inside of her foot to Zerboni who’s one-time volley caught Naeher flat-footed and leveled the match at 1-1.
There was still some soccer to be played, and in the 86’ D’Angelo came out of her goal and made a spectacular block with her foot on an attacking Chicago player. The contact left D’Angelo with a sore leg, but she remained in the game and play was never stopped. Dunn and Hamilton each made stoppage-time challenges, but the game ended in a 1-1 draw.
While it had to be frustrating for the Courage to dominate the game and only come away with one point, they showed their customary grit and perseverance to remain undefeated in the 2018 campaign. Once they get the communication sorted out between the goalkeepers and the back line, North Carolina could be unstoppable on the way to another NWSL Shield.