The North Carolina Courage and Chicago Red Stars will meet on Tuesday night at Providence Park in Portland, Oregon, in the second NWSL semifinal at 9 p.m. ET on ESPNews. (Buy Tickets)
The game was originally scheduled to be played on Sunday in North Carolina, home of the first-place Courage, but was moved to Portland due to Hurricane Florence. The league announced the change on Thursday. The winner will take on Portland Thorns FC on Saturday afternoon at Providence Park in the 2018 NWSL Championship.
Tuesday’s semifinal is a meeting of the NWSL’s best-ever regular season team in the Courage, and the league’s most prolific goal scorer in Red Stars forward Sam Kerr.
North Carolina set records for wins (17), points (57), most goals scored (53) and fewest goals allowed (17). The Courage finished the regular season at 17-1-6, unbeaten on the road, 15 points clear of second-place Portland Thorns FC and NWSL Shield winners for the second consecutive year. Their points per game average of 2.375 is the best in the history of not just the NWSL, but also any team in American women’s professional soccer history, besting the previous record set by the 2011 Western New York Flash of Women’s Professional Soccer.
“North Carolina has had a special season. Have a special team. You want to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best, so we’re excited about the opportunity to compete against them,” Red Stars coach Rory Dames said on a conference call with the media last week. “North Carolina’s the best women’s team that has played in a professional league in this country. They’ve statistically proven that. … So, all credit to them for what they’ve done, but we feel pretty good about our group as well.”
On the other side of the field, Kerr followed up last year’s record 17 goals with 16 this year, winning the Golden Boot for the second straight season. Her 16 goals and four assists came in 19 games after missing the first five games of the season because of international duty.
“I think [Kerr is] just one of those players that’s unstoppable at the moment. She’s in the top form of her career and she is unstoppable. She’s scoring in almost every single game,” Courage defender Abby Erceg said. “I think we just have to find a way to shut her down as best as possible. Some days, you’re going to be able to do it and some days, you’re not going to be able to do it. That’s how it goes with players like that. They’re just so good that they always find a way. But I enjoy the challenge. I like playing against players like that. They make you better. They make you think.”
Chicago claimed the fourth and final playoff spot, their fourth straight semifinal appearance, with a strong run down the stretch. The Red Stars are 8-2-3 in their last 13 games, with the only losses coming to the Courage in July and then Utah Royals FC in the regular season finale, when the Red Stars had already clinched the No. 4 seed.
Both teams have history to overcome this postseason. No Shield winner has ever won the title, including last year’s Courage team, which lost the final to Portland Thorns FC in the final. And the Red Stars have never made the NWSL Championship, losing in the semifinals the last three years, including a 1-0 loss in North Carolina last year on an 89th minute goal from Denise O’Sullivan last October.
— NWSL (@NWSL) September 14, 2018
While Kerr is new to the team, and has not been a part of those losses, she says the team is confident heading in the playoffs. “It doesn’t really play any emotion into this week. The girls have said around the team that they feel the most confident they ever have in this team, so that gives us confidence. I don’t think that’s something that the girls are thinking about.”
The Courage are 1-0-2 vs. the Red Stars this season, making Chicago just one of two teams to earn multiple points vs. the league leaders this season. This after the Red Stars went 3-0 vs. the Courage in the regular season last year before the playoff loss.
“I think they’re a very good side. To be honest with you, you don’t want to play anybody in the playoffs, but this is certainly one we would have liked to avoid,” Courage head coach Paul Riley said.
When the Courage take the field on Tuesday night, they’ll do so without one of their most important players in midfielder McCall Zerboni, who broke her elbow in the first minute of the U.S. women’s national team’s win over Chile on September 4. Zerboni, named an MVP Finalist on Sunday, finished the season first in tackles won, second in interceptions and third in duels won. When Red Stars goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher put up an impressive 11 saves vs. the Courage back in May, it was Zerboni who finally scored late to keep North Carolina’s then unbeaten streak alive.
“McCall’s a huge part of their team. I’ve played with McCall, so I know how much she means to a team. When we were at Western New York five years ago she was a big part of our team,” Kerr said. “It’s disappointing. You want to play the best teams when you go into a semifinal, but I’m sure — North Carolina, they beat one of the best teams in the world with six of their players out [Olympique Lyon in the International Champions Cup Final], so they’re a resilient team.”
Even without Zerboni on the field, the game will still feature two MVP finalists in Kerr and Courage forward Lynn Williams, who finished 1-2 in this year’s Golden Boot race with 16 and 14 goals, respectively. Kerr’s goals came in just 19 games after missing the first part of the season on international duty. Williams caught fire down the stretch, scoring 13 goals in the final 14 of her 21 appearances. Both goal scorers are the only players to record a hat trick in the league this season.
North Carolina Courage vs. Chicago Red Stars will take place on Tuesday night at 9 p.m. ET on ESPNews from Providence Park in Portland, Oregon. (Buy Tickets)