Courage return to the NWSL Championship
Jess McDonald scored early, Sam Mewis scored late for the win
The North Carolina Courage beat the Chicago Red Stars 2-0 on Tuesday night. (Photo credit: Craig Mitchelldyer/
The North Carolina Courage beat the Chicago Red Stars 2-0 on Tuesday night. (Photo credit: Craig Mitchelldyer/

Portland, Oregon — In front of a mostly unfriendly crowd of 4,646 at Providence Park, the North Carolina Courage defeated the Chicago Red Stars 2-0 on Tuesday night to advance to the NWSL Championship. This is the second consecutive year the Courage have defeated the Red Stars in the semifinals. On Saturday, the Courage will once again face the Thorns in the NWSL Championship — again a rematch of last year, only this time the two sides will meet on the Thorns’ home turf of Providence Park.

The Courage — the NWSL Shield winners after finishing the regular season at 17-1-6 — found the back of the net in the first five minutes and the final five minutes of the game. Courage forward Jess McDonald opened the scoring for the Courage and Sam Mewis sealed the game up in the 86th minute with an upper-90 blast from a distance.

The Red Stars, who entered the postseason as the fourth seed, came into this match at 8-2-3 in their last 13 games with their only losses coming to the Courage in July and then Utah Royals FC in the final regular season game. While the Red Stars’ 2018 campaign ended on the night, Rory Dames’ squad put on a performance that kept the Shield winners on their toes.

“They had momentum for most of the first half it was one of those situations where we just couldn’t figure it out,” McDonald, who scored her eighth goal of the year, said after the game. “So we dropped in, we calmed down a little bit and then we started to create our own chances. It was a very great challenge for us because it just shows how talented of a team Chicago is and we couldn’t ask for a better team to play in the semifinal.”

Just five minutes into the game, Courage forward Crystal Dunn saw an opening in Chicago’s backline and slipped in McDonald. McDonald was put in a one-v-one situation against Red Stars defender Julie Ertz and with confidence beat her and slotted a right-footed shot into the left post for the early 1-0 lead.

“She’s been with me for five years and she always comes when you need her,” Courage head coach Paul Riley said postgame. “She was the pick of the forwards tonight.”

McDonald’s goal, on a typical night for the Courage, would have set the tone for several more shots and offensive chances to come shortly after, but the plot shifted on Tuesday night and the Red Stars took control.

Even before McDonald’s goal went in, Red Stars forward Yuki Nagasato had a one-time blast that hit the crossbar. Then in the eighth minute, Golden Boot winner Sam Kerr almost equalized for her side, but her shot hit off the post.

“Kerr, she was such a headache,” Riley said after the game. “And Nagasato, when Nagasato gets in the game, Kerr gets in the game. They caused us a lot of problems.”

Kerr came into the semifinal with 16 goals on the year — good for the Golden Boot for the second straight season. Her 16 goals, along with four assists, came in only 19 games after she missed the first five games due to international duty.

Courage defender and captain Abby Erceg, who has been a key component of the Courage’s record-breaking defensive season (fewest goals allowed) was asked after the game what it’s like to defend Kerr.

“It sucks,” Erceg said laughing.“No, she’s very good. She’s so good. You can watch footage of her all day, but she’s so dynamic in the way that she plays and she’s not predictable which makes it really hard to mark her.”

Kerr and Nagasato have been the dynamic duo for the Red Stars all season with Nagasato chipping in four goals and seven assists this season, and all seven of her assists have been to Kerr. The two continued to dictate the game throughout the remainder of the first half with the Courage disheveled in the midfield and caught chasing. The Courage were without MVP finalist midfielder McCall Zerboni, who broke her elbow in the first minute of the U.S. national team’s win over Chile on September 4. The Courage midfield, specifically Mewis and Denise O’Sullivan, were dealt the task of handling Nagasato and a technical Chicago offense, without the blocking and stopping of Zerboni.

“If I can try and emulate her and I think I was being really vocal at the end, which is something that I think she would’ve done,” Mewis said of Zerboni after the game. “I think that I’m learning and I’m just trying to grow and use what I’ve learned from her all year, because I think that’s what the team needs.”

Before the half, the Red Stars continued to press. In the 32nd minute, it looked like they were going to get the equalizer after some nice one-two work in the middle between Kerr and Nagasato set up a promising chance for Kerr to see the ball back at the top of the box. Kerr attempted to strike it one time but she didn’t hit it through cleanly and it went just wide of the right post

Kerr finished the match with two shots and created one chance and Nagasato had one shot. After the game, Kerr was asked about her time with the Red Stars and if she will be back next season.

“I mean if I stay injury free, I’ll definitely be with the Chicago Red Stars,” Kerr said postgame. “I think a lot of people have kind of whispered that I’m going to Europe and they kind of know more than me, but you know I wouldn’t really change what I’m doing at the moment going into a World Cup year.”

The Red Stars, even with Kerr now, have yet to make it to the NWSL Championship even after making the semifinals for four straight seasons. This year, head coach Rory Dames said this loss feels different.

“I thought we were really good tonight. I thought we opened up a really good team especially in the first half. It’s not often that they pull back their pressure and sit a little lower, but we forced them to do that because we were able to break their lines.”

After halftime, the Courage shifted their game plan and sat back. The Red Stars forced the Courage, who set records for wins (17), points (57), most goals scored (53) and fewest goals allowed (17) and became the best team in American women’s professional soccer history (per their points per game average of 2.375) to sit in.

“We adapted the pressure a little bit, we were getting picked a apart in the first half, “Riley said. “Morgan Brian was getting on the ball, [Danielle] Colaprico, [Vanessa] DiBernardo they were hurting us bad, Nagasato was getting in between lines she caused us a lot of problems a lot tonight, then we just backed off a little bit.”

Once the Courage adjusted their strategy, the game opened up for them and they were able to find Dunn more, Debinha and Lynn Williams in pockets in the final third.

In the 86th minute, Mewis scored her fourth goal of the season and did so in absolute style, scoring a rocket from the right side of the pitch into the upper-90.

“It was so funny someone asked me out there [about the goal] and I forgot who had passed it to me and now I know it was Crystal [Dunn],” Mewis said after the game. “I just [knew] that I wanted to shoot it and I think I heard a couple of people telling me to and it came at a good time.”

The Courage will return to Providence Park on Sunday, September 22 to face the Thorns on their home pitch at 4:30 p.m. ET. In the NWSL, no Shield winner has ever won the title. Will this be the year the Courage break the curse?

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