2018 NWSL Semifinal 2: Chicago at North Carolina (at Portland)

Tuesday! Tuesday! Tuesday!

That’s got a certain ring to it, I think. With the UEFA Champions League men’s matches serving a as a warm-up act for the world football audience, 9PM Eastern will bring the relocated and hurricane-delayed second semi-final game to the masses. In Portland, of course.

How’d we get here?

It may be difficult to remember, but there was a time when the North Carolina Courage weren’t that good. It was roughly three years ago. Terrible record. No fans. Abysmal stats.

But as soon as the papers were signed to extract the Western New York Flash from their Western New York home and deposit them in Cary, North Carolina, the club has been humming. If you’re keeping track, the same core group of players and coaches are on the brink of their third consecutive trip to the NWSL Championship. Not too shabby.

This season has arguably been their best, with standout performances in every category—especially in wins. It’s been weeks since the Courage locked up the NWSL Shield, and weeks minus one day since they started selling tickets to their well-earned, top-seed home playoff match on September 16th. But…

Hurricane Florence had other plans. After a frightening intensification, the storm slowed down and started developing an uncertain path last week. The NWSL initially suggested it was “monitoring” the storm, and finally released a statement on Wednesday, stating that the game was “in doubt” for Sunday.

That statement went out immediately before the media conference call with players and head coaches for the game. Paul Riley took a fairly standard “we’ll play anywhere, anytime” posture, but Rory Dames did not mask his displeasure with the league’s slow movement towards a solution. Indeed, he even indicated that he would not force any players or staff concerned about their safety to board an airplane if the league decided to fly the team to North Carolina for a game on Sunday. Dames waved off the suggestion that the match be relocated to Chicago, noting that the Courage deserved the home game due to their dominating performance during the season, and that if it was up to him, they’d move the match to Portland. That would allow the winning team to not have to travel again before the final.

And, what do you know? They moved the match to Portland, on Tuesday.

With the drama involved, and the obviously more-pressing issue of the deadly impacts of the storm across much of the Atlantic Southeast, it’s been a tad challenging to focus on the football.

But let’s not forget. These teams are good.

Here’s the Opta stats leaders XI for the season. SIX of the XI are NC Courage players. SIX!

That’s a lot of talent wearing Courage colors, and it doesn’t even include the pair Paul Riley likes to call “the twin towers,” Lynn Williams and Jess McDonald. Spoiler alert: they score lots of goals.

Abby Erceg has been an absolute monster on defense for NC, and makes amazing tackles like the one below seem routine. She’s in the air before Huerta even has a touch or even knows where she wants to go with the ball, and lands in perfect position to ensure the Dash danger has been extinguished.

Don’t sleep on the lone Red Star on that squad, as she’s got a knack for finding her way into dangerous spots right when the defense is least prepared to guard her. The Courage may be looking for a 2nd consecutive finals appearance (3rd if you count the WNY Flash), but Sam Kerr has already secured her second consecutive Golden Boot. All she does is find her way free and score goals. And run. And wear XL kit shirts.

Unlike last year at Sky Blue, Kerr isn’t being asked to do everything herself. Danielle Colaprico and Vanessa DiBernardo’s impressive midfield work keep Kerr from having to cycle back too much, which keeps her fresh for the entire match. Arin Gilliland’s tenacity running up and down the sideline giveth (to the Red Stars) and taketh-away (from would-be attacks). Julie Ertz and Alyssa Naeher provide experience and toughness in the back. Plus, when she’s been healthy, Morgan Brian has quietly been having a pretty good season too. Lately, it’s been hard to remember that this incarnation of the Red Stars isn’t at all the version the Red Stars thought they’d have at the beginning of the season.

Remember the “Mega-trade?”

Yes, that happened. And whatever you thought of the trade at the time, you’ve got to like the results in retrospect, and you really have to like the extra draft picks that the Red Stars will have for 2019 in case their 2018 squad falls a tad short. After all the injuries and roster turmoil, it’s remarkable that they dug their way back to a playoff berth. Now, they’ll need to avoid another (literal) last minute semi-final loss to the Courage to earn the chance to face the Thorns in Portland on Saturday.

This time last year:

Chicago Red Stars at NC Courage at Portland

Tuesday at 9PM Eastern on ESPNEWS (ESP NEWS!) and ESPN3 / NWSL.COM

Screen Shot 2018-09-18 at 3.19.29 PM.jpg

It’s a real shame this match won’t feature McCall Zerboni, because she’s been such a big piece of the Courage’s success since they were formed. It’s also a bit concerning that the Courage also have Kristin Hamilton and Katelyn Rowland listed as questionable, the latter due to concussion.

Chicago has Brooke Elby on the questionable list, and won’t have Christina Murillo due to her duties with the Mexican Women’s National Team.

This is a really great matchup, and would have been great to have played in Cary. But in Portland, I think the game is much tighter. Sam Kerr will get her chances, and Hinkle will have difficulty moving freely against Chicago’s fullbacks. Dunn will be rampant, and I don’t know who can keep track of her for a whole game. She can take over this match, and that’s what I expect to see.

I think we’re destined for a repeat of last season’s final, only with a monumental task ahead of the Courage to somehow find a winner in Providence Park. But it will be pretty easy to visualize winning on Saturday if they’re able to win on Tuesday. Game on.

North Carolina Courage 3-1 Chicago Red Stars