Cary, N.C. — The North Carolina Courage are headed to the NWSL Championship after beating the Chicago Red Stars 1-0 thanks to a late game-winning goal by Denise O’Sullivan. They’ll face Portland Thorns FC in the NWSL Championship on October 14 at Orlando City Stadium.
— NWSL (@NWSL) October 8, 2017
The goal came off a Courage corner kick, something North Carolina has excelled at this season. Sam Mewis‘ initial service was won in the air and headed away from the goal by her teammate Jess McDonald, but O’Sullivan was looming at the top of the 18, and hammered it back towards the goal. McDonald had just entered the match six minutes earlier.
“The first thing on my mind was, ‘I want to score this.’ It bounced it front of me and I just hit it as hard as I could. To be honest I didn’t think I could score from the edge of the box or even make it that far,” O’Sullivan said after the game. “I didn’t think I could actually hit a ball that hard to be honest.”
The ball went through Ertz’s legs and bounced off her shin redirecting just enough to beat Naeher. “Which is unfortunate because [Ertz has] had a great year for us,” Red Stars coach Rory Dames said of the play. “I was a bit surprised she wasn’t one of finalists for the MVPs of the league because she’s been that good for us this year.”
The Courage took nine corner kicks in the match compared to the Red Stars one.
“They’ve been great on set pieces all season. That’s where they score a lot of their goals,” Naeher told Julie Foudy on Lifetime after the game. “They’re disciplined. They’ve got a lot of great ball winners. So we put some time into this week in preparation for it. They just kept coming and they snuck one right in at the end.”
O’Sullivan joined the Courage in the middle of the season after being waived by the Dash. Sunday’s game was just her 8th with North Carolina and her first goal with her new team.
“Playing in the American league is something I’ve always wanted to do and the league is great so I wanted to stay here,” O’Sullivan said. “The minute he phoned me and said there’s an option for me in the midfield to play there. … I went a few days later, so here I am.”
The Red Stars had a chance to tie things at the end of the game. In stoppage time, Naeher came into the offensive half of the field to take a free kick, which she sent into the box as Chicago pushed everyone forward. In a bit of chaos in front of the goal, her service bounced over Courage goalkeeper Katelyn Rowland, but was headed off the line and out of danger by Mewis.
“Sam just stepped up. Everyone wanted to kiss her forehead,” Courage defender Taylor Smith said. “It just shows everyone is willing to put their body on the line and it’s a great mentality to have.”
The whistle blew moments later and the Courage escaped with their 13th shutout of the season and yet another 1-0 win. It’s the eighth time North Carolina has won by that scoreline. They allowed just one shot on goal to the Red Stars in the game.
“I think it just shows how relentless we are. Every game we think of ourselves as underdogs. We don’t even think about past results. We think about how we can get better. How we can improve and we plan to carry that on to next week,” Smith said.
It’s the third straight semifinal loss for the Red Stars, who fell last year in extra time to the Spirit and the year before to FC Kansas City.
“Rory just said we gotta take it to the next level,” Red Stars defender Casey Short said. “We didn’t keep it enough. That’s a new gear that we need to have for next season.”
— NWSL (@NWSL) October 8, 2017
The Red Stars had a few good second half chances thanks to forward Christen Press, but could not convert vs. the league’s second-best defense.
In the 61st minute, Arin Gilliland sent a cross into the box towards Press, but Smith shielded Press enough that she couldn’t get onto the end of it and, despite a brief bobble, Rowland collected it. Rowland also beat Press to the ball after second half sub Yuki Nagasato sent a through ball that sprung Press behind the Courage backline.
Courage midfielder Debinha was injured in the eighth minute after landing badly on her left arm. She suffered a dislocated elbow and had her arm in a sling after the match.
The crowd of 10,017 at Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park is an attendance record for their first season in North Carolina. It’s the first-ever playoff game for the Courage after winning the championship last year as the Western New York Flash before relocating to North Carolina.
The Courage will be looking to become the first NWSL Shield winners to ever win an NWSL Championship. They’ll face Portland Thorns FC on Saturday at Orlando City Stadium in Orlando, Florida.