A Disappointing End to the Season
The Courage hosted their final regular season game last weekend in a disheartening loss to the Orlando Pride. The loss marks the sixth consecutive loss to playoff teams by the Courage, dating back to the road loss to Orlando in May. Since then the Courage have lost to Orlando twice (1-3 and 2-3 scorelines), Portland once (0-1) and Chicago thrice (1-3, 2-3 and 1-2). The Courage won the Shield based solely on their solid victories over teams they should be beating, something that the other playoff teams failed to do at various times during the season. Thus, with nothing on the line in their final game the Courage came out with a unique lineup and got punished for it.
Unlike my usual critique of lineups, the decision to start an unusual squad for this final regular season game was absolutely warranted. The Courage were playing their 3rd game in 6 days, they already had the #1 locked down thanks to their 4-0 thrashing of the Houston Dash the previous Wednesday and if they won the game they would be hosting Orlando again the following weekend. Why show your hand when there is nothing to gain and everything to lose? Thus, Paul Riley gave Sam Mewis her first rest of the season as Nora Holstad started in her stead. Similarly, both Hatch and McDonald started out resting. With Mewis getting a 63 minute break, the only Courage player to play every minute of every game was Abby Dahlkemper on the season.
The game started out rough, with the Courage going down 2-0 with Edmonds scoring in the 31st minute and Marta scoring in the 51st for the Pride. Then, in a flurry of excitement Lynn Williams scored twice, once in the 62nd minute and then again in the 67th on a PK.
The given penalty was definitely questionable, but when you’re down you take whatever you can get, as Debhina seemed to trip over her own feet.
The game ended in disaster, though, as Alanna Kennedy scored an amazing free kick in the 91st minute, shocking the crowd and surprising Rowland who expected Marta to take the kick.
Bring on the Red Stars
The first playoff game in North Carolina comes against the only team that the Courage never beat in their inaugural season. The Red Stars bested the Courage in all 3 matches, and while there are certainly excuses to go with each of those losses, the only thing that matters at the end of the season is the final scoreline. Thus, the Courage players must be feeling giddy to host the Red Stars and vanquish their final demon.
Red Stars’ Offense vs Courage Defense
In the 3 games against the Red Stars the Courage allowed 2.67 goals per game, while they allowed just 0.67 goals per game against every other team in the league. Obviously something needs to be fixed here, but it is purely on the mental side of the ball and not in the lineup. The four main Courage defenders, Hinkle, Erceg, Dahlkemper and Smith are absolutely up to the task of containing the Chicago attack, but they need to play a nearly flawless game if they want to earn the W. Similarly, Katelyn Rowland needs to sit back and be a bit more patient. She is excellent at attacking the ball, but recently she has been prone to making costly errors by coming out of net when she can’t reach the ball. The Courage should maintain a high line, hoping to catch Press offsides frequently to slow down the attack, and be prepared to rush back when the line fails. Anything more than one goal conceded will make a victory extremely difficult, as Press is an expert at slowing down the game and wasting time when her team has the lead.
Red Stars’ Midfield vs Courage Midfield
The Red Stars and Courage have similar levels of talent in their midfields, with the Courage opting to outwork their opponents while the Red Stars try to play around them. In the three games against Chicago this season the Courage have been forced into too many turnovers in the midfield, which means that Mewis and Zerboni will need to control their passes, while Denise O’Sullivan and Kris Hamilton work hard to press early in the Red Stars attack. Maintaining possession and preventing breakaway opportunities for Chicago will be the most important aspects to focus on, with passing into the overlapping runs being the next major priority. If we can spread out the Red Stars in the midfield by utilizing the width of the field we should be able to break down their mediocre defense.
Red Stars’ Defense vs Courage Offense
Here is where the Courage should shine. Naeher has become prone to mistakes of her own, and her defense frequently lets her down and puts her in tough positions. Scoring early and not missing open opportunities (like Lynn did in the opening minutes against Orlando) will set the tone for the game. The Courage have always had great opportunities this season while playing Chicago, but they seem to choke, With 4 attacking players in Williams, Hatch, McDonald and Hamilton all available and fresh, this will be the first time that Chicago faces the full force of the Courage attack. Scoring 3 goals should ensure a victory, and anything less against this shaky and hype-aggressive defense would be a disappointment.