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NWSL Semifinal Preview: Courage try to buck Red Stars trend

(photo by Lewis Gettier)

Chicago Red Stars (11-7-6, 39 pts) at North Carolina Courage (16-7-1, 49 pts)

Sunday, 3:30 p.m. EDT, Sahlen’s Stadium
All-time series: Red Stars lead, 7-4-3
In North Carolina: Red Stars lead, 1-0-0
Last meeting: September 3, 2017; 2-1 Red Stars

For the Courage, it’s a chance to break the curse of the Shield and bring home a championship for the second year in a row (if under a different name), while Chicago looks to end their semifinal woes. Both sides are coming off losses to end their regular seasons and didn’t finish quite as strong as they were in the middle of the season. It’s the defending champs versus the team that’s never won NWSL hardware in the second NWSL semifinal.

One thing became abundantly clear in the last week of regular season play – if it comes to depth, North Carolina has the edge. No matter who starts for the team, they seem to keep rolling. That said, advancing to the final requires something only two of the Courage players have done this season, and that was with another team – beat Chicago. The Red Stars had their number in three meetings this year. To reverse the trend, the Courage need to do a few things differently. First, play faster. They typically play fast-paced games, overloading their attacking third with players. Sam Mewis and McCall Zerboni can launch lightning-quick attacks after collecting the ball in midfield. In previous games, they allowed the Red Stars to slow things down and control the tempo, forcing the Courage to chase the ball. The second is to move the ball up the flanks. They are better at using their width than the Red Stars, with lightning-fast players like Makenzy Doniak and Jaelene Hinkle capable of delivering solid service.

With many of their regular starters rested in Portland and an unfavorable result leaving them raring to go, Chicago should be ready. One key for them is to avoid their slow starts. The Courage can absolutely take advantage if the Red Stars take fifteen minutes to find cohesion. Another is for Katie Naughton and Sam Johnson to maintain constant communication in central defense. Facing two players like Lynn Williams and Ashley Hatch, they need to make sure they don’t let one pull them out of shape, freeing up space for the other. Their outside backs also need to avoid getting caught up the pitch. With four of the best fullbacks in the league in this game, those matchups should be entertaining. Look for Christen Press to attempt to split the Courage defense and beat them on direct balls. The Red Stars aren’t likely to have Morgan Brian, but she hasn’t made much of an impact in her limited minutes for them this season anyway. They will return Yuki Nagasato, who could be a game changer.


Denise O’Sullivan

O’Sullivan’s high work rate made her a perfect fit for the Courage, and the midseason arrival has fit in almost seamlessly, battling Debinha for (and often winning) the attacking midfielder role. She plays quick, simple passes that set up her strikers perfectly, and she’s aggressive in going after loose balls.

Casey Short

While she can and does get forward, offering quality service, what makes Short stand out from other fullbacks is her skill in 1v1 defending. Her speed to chase down opponents and her tenacity in refusing to get turned makes her nearly unbeatable on the left flank. Her talents should be in high demand against the Courage.


Sam Mewis versus Julie Ertz

The two are beginning to form what looks like the midfield of the future for the USWNT, but on Sunday, they’re on opposite sides of the field. They could each stake a claim to being the MVP for their respective sides, and they’ll have big roles to play for their team to advance. Both are aggressive ball-winners who don’t shy away from physicality. Ertz is more likely to go to ground in a tackle while Mewis is better at passing out of trouble, which should lead to a fantastic midfield clash.

Keep an eye on:
• Jess McDonald’s long throw-ins, which brought this team playoff success last year
• Sofia Huerta’s long range rockets

{Read More: NWSL announces finalists for 2017 post season awards}


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