Portland, Oregon — As a team, the North Carolina Courage are known for their ridiculously dominant offense, which uses a high-pressing approach to take control of games and keep opposing defenses on their back foot. But Tuesday night in their semifinal against the Chicago Red Stars, the story wasn’t the offense, but how the team’s all-time league-leading defense — the Courage have conceded just 17 goals all season — was able to shut down a Chicago attack that for 45 minutes looked like it was capable of anything.
“We were getting picked apart in the first half,” said North Carolina coach Paul Riley. “Morgan Brian was getting the ball. [Danielle] Colaprico, [Vanessa] DiBernardo, they were hurting us bad. [Yuki] Nagasato was getting in between lines. She caused us a lot of problems tonight and then we just backed off, dropped 30 yards deeper than we normally do.”
That choice to drop off was an unusual move for a team largely defined by their ability to run relentlessly at opponents, and against a Red Stars side that didn’t seem to be bothered by North Carolina’s usual pressure, it proved the right one. The first half saw Chicago repeatedly break the first line of pressure in the midfield, with Brian often able to beat multiple defenders to find a forward pass. The attacking duo of Sam Kerr and Nagasato looked as dangerous as they have all season, and Kerr had a handful of excellent chances, including one shot that went off the post in the ninth minute.
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“We just couldn’t figure out their shape in the first half,” said Courage center back Abby Erceg. “Especially when you’re trying to do it on the fly, during the game, it’s very difficult. Paul [Riley] helped us out a little bit with that, thankfully.”
The game changed completely in the second half. Kerr and Nagasato, so dynamic as an attacking duo for the first 45 minutes, couldn’t find each other. “We dropped off a little bit just to make sure they weren’t getting in behind us,” said Erceg. “They were getting a lot of chances, their midfield was getting behind our midfield and it was causing a lot of problems. We changed it and it worked out in the second half.”
“As the game got stretched in the second half,” said Red Stars coach Rory Dames, “we couldn’t get anybody up high enough with [Kerr] to give her any sort of support. … We needed to be able to keep the ball and get the ball moving a little bit more.” Unable to find space between North Carolina’s lines, Chicago often resorted to long upfield passes, many of which weren’t successful — but even then, Kerr was able to get on the end of a few optimistic services. That’s where North Carolina’s last line of defense stepped in.
“I think the Abbys [Erceg and Dahlkemper] did a good job of having one tight to her and one covering,” said Dames. Their smart positioning, together with some excellent one-on-one defending by both players, contained the relatively few looks Kerr found in the second half.
“Sam Kerr was frighteningly good today,” said Riley, “and [Erceg] and Dahlkemper dealt with her. Their partnership has been fantastic this year. … Abby Erceg, we got her from Chicago a couple years ago and she’s just elevated her game, fitness-wise, professionally, technically. She’s better than she used to be, great leader. In the locker room, she’s just amazing. I hope she’s defender of the year because she absolutely, you look at who deserves it? Becky [Sauerbrunn] deserved it, [Julie Ertz] probably deserved it other years, but absolutely hands down, there’s no question for me.”
Midfielder Sam Mewis echoed Riley’s praise. “Our center backs are so good,” she said. “They’re both up for defender of the year, right? Which I think is so deserved, they’re both world-class defenders.”
Asked what it’s like defending one of the world’s best forwards in Kerr, Erceg was straightforward. “It sucks,” she laughed. “She’s very good, she’s so good. You can watch footage of her all day, but she’s so dynamic in the way she plays, she’s not predictable which makes it very difficult to mark her. That’s one of the trademarks of her game. She can pull a goal out of nothing, which makes her dangerous all over the field, so we really wanted to shut her down today.”
Between strong individual performances from the defense and the mid-game adjustments to their overall game plan, North Carolina did just that. Ultimately, it was an approach that allowed the Courage to be effective offensively as well, giving the team a look that almost harkened back to the Western New York Flash days, when blazing-fast attacks in transition were the team’s most powerful weapon.
Ultimately, it was a wonder goal by Mewis, sent to the far post from 30 yards out, that put the game to bed in the 86th minute. Chicago had already been looking tired and frustrated, and after that, it was all over. “It came at a good time,” said Mewis. “It allowed us to definitely sit back, we didn’t need to get another goal and stretch the lead at all. … I think all it really did was allow us to sit in, keep them out, go to the corners, and finish the game out.”
Heading into a rematch of last year’s championship, against a Portland Thorns side whose offense has looked unstoppable in recent weeks, the team’s ability to adjust in a way they haven’t done in the regular season could prove to be a crucial asset.
“We’re really motivated,” said Mewis of the upcoming final. “We’ve been thinking about this all year, and we’re excited to just come out and try and perform and I think it’s going be a great match, for the league, for women’s soccer. It’s going to be exciting.”