Brazilian international Debinha is a vital link in North Carolina’s attack. (Alexis Reau/Presse Sports via USA TODAY Sports)
CARY, N.C. — The North Carolina Courage will attempt to become the second team in league history to win consecutive National Women’s Soccer League titles when it hosts the Chicago Red Stars at Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park Sunday at 3:30 p.m.
The Courage, which won last year’s championship by defeating Portland Thorns FC, 3-0, at Providence Park, also could become the first NWSL team to win a league title on its home field with a win.
Chicago is facing the Courage in the postseason for the third successive year, having lost to North Carolina in consecutive semifinals. The Red Stars secured their first appearance in the NWSL championship game last Sunday with a 1-0 home win over Portland, thanks to an eighth-minute strike from Golden Boot winner Sam Kerr. On the same day, the Courage remained unbeaten at home, earning a 4-1 semifinal victory over Reign FC in extratime as right back Heather O’Reilly, forward Crystal Dunn and midfielder Debinha scored goals. Reign FC also tallied an own goal.
For the third straight year, the Courage won the NWSL Shield, going 15-5-4 with 49 points with a plus-31 goal differential as the team broke its own season goal record with 54 tallies. Leading the charge was forward Lynn Williams, whose 12 goals were the second-most in the league. Forward Kristen Hamilton also ranked third in the NWSL with nine goals in 1,313 minutes. Midfielder Debinha and left back Jaelene Hinkle finished second and third on the NWSL’s assist leaderboard with seven and six, respectively.
Chicago, coached by Rory Dames, finished second in the league table with at 14-8-2 and 44 points. Led by arguably the best striker in the world, the Red Stars relied on Kerr, an Australia international, up top. For the third consecutive season, Kerr led the NWSL in scoring (18 goals). She had a hand in 23 of Chicago’s 41 goals, recording five assists.
A star-studded affair, Sunday’s matchup will feature nine of the 11 players on the NWSL Players Association’s team of the year, with seven (Williams, Hamilton, Debinha, Dunn, Hinkle, Denise O’Sullivan and Abby Erceg) coming from the Courage and two (Kerr and Casey Short) from Chicago.
While the Courage has won consecutive semifinal matches against Chicago, head coach Paul Riley’s team is searching for its first win against Chicago in 2019. The two teams played to a 1-1 draw in Cary in the season opener in April before Chicago earned home wins in May and July.
Last time out
Ninety minutes weren’t enough to determine a winner between the Courage and Reign FC last Sunday, despite right back Heather O’Reilly’s go-ahead penalty kick in the 88th minute. After Reign FC’s Ifeoma Onumonu equalized three minutes into stoppage time, NC Courage kept its composure and scored the game’s final three goals in extratime.
“When you give up a late goal like that, it can affect the psyche of a team,” Riley said. “I told them at the end of the game, ‘It’s a mighty challenge.’ It was kind of a hole we put ourselves in, but you only get better by being in those types of holes. They showed a lot of character in overtime.”