The Chicago Red Stars put on a show for their fans in their final home match of the 2017 regular season, coming back from a goal down to win 2-1 - their third victory against the league-leading North Carolina Courage this season.
Lynn Williams put the Courage on the board early but second half goals from Yuki Nagasato and Julie Ertz meant the three points stayed in Chicago.
Courage start strong
It was the visitors that started the better of the two sides, their high intensity proving too much for the Chicago defence to handle. An early Jess McDonald chance was well smothered by Alyssa Naeher, but just two minutes later a Christen Press giveaway in centre midfield to McCall Zerboni led to a devastating through ball from McDonald towards Williams, who put the shot away low into the far corner for a deserved early lead.
Chicago struggled to create throughout the first half, tallying no shots on target in the opening 45. Slow in their decision-making, they were clearly missing Vanessa DiBernardo who was ruled out due to an ongoing concussion.
In the 32nd minute North Carolina thought they’d doubled the lead as Williams finished over Naeher after a period of sustained Courage pressure, but the linesman deemed her offside as the ball was poked towards her. Replays showed the decision was very marginal, if correct at all.
Late in the half Chicago just about survived a flurry of set pieces, although mostly due to luck than strong defending. First a Sam Mewis free kick went straight into the wall, but Zerboni kept the play alive and was dragged to the ground by the shirt by Danielle Colaprico. Colaprico was subsequently booked, and the punishment was nearly more severe when Kristen Hamilton drew a sharp save from Naeher off the free kick. She was also on the end of the resultant corner, but her shot went just over this time.
Red Stars come to play in the second half
The second half nearly started the way of the first as Denise O’Sullivan found herself one-on-one with Naeher inside the six-yard area but a combination of indecision, Sam Johnson’s sliding tackle, and Arin Gilliland’s dramatic clearance somehow stopped her from doubling North Carolina’s lead.
And her team were made to pay for their slackness in front of goal just a few moments later as Chicago scored a near-replica of the opener. Ertz pounced on a loose touch from Mewis deep in the Courage half and was able to get the ball into the path of the advancing Press, who unselfishly squared to Nagasato - who had only entered the match at half-time - for her first goal in the NWSL.
After this goal Chicago clearly felt a flood of confidence and began to really make a mark on the game. This was also helped by the reshuffle at half-time, which saw Ertz move further up the field.
With fifteen minutes remaining the Courage had cause to feel hard done by again as they were denied a clear penalty when Naeher brought down Ashley Hatch but the referee waved no foul - and, to add insult to injury, Zerboni was booked seconds later for a rash challenge that was undoubtedly through frustration at the no-call.
And, once again, Chicago made North Carolina pay - a deep ball into the box wasn’t cleared and fell to Nagasato’s feet, and she earned her third point of the night with a curling cross which was met by a stooping header from Ertz, leaving Katelyn Rowland rooted to the spot as it flew into her side netting.
The playoff picture
With the hunt for playoff places going down to the wire, the win today kept the Chicago Red Stars up in third place as they head on the road for their final three matches. The North Carolina Courage sealed postseason play with their win on Wednesday, but a win could have gone a long way in securing a home semi-final, and of course the NWSL Shield. They’re still in the driving seat to finish in top spot, two points ahead of second-placed Portland Thorns with a game in hand.