The North Carolina Courage had to play into extra time in its semifinal match against Reign FC before taking care of business and earning its fourth straight trip to the National Women’s Soccer League final.
It didn’t wait nearly as long to finish the job and win the title.
Brazilian World Cup star Debinha scored just four minutes in and the Courage didn’t let up, adding on goals from U.S. National Team members Jessica McDonald, Crystal Dunn and Sam Mewis to defeat the Chicago Red Stars 4-0 before a sellout crowd of 10,227 at Sahlen’s Stadium in Cary.
The four goals were the most scored in an NWSL championship match and the title was the second straight for the Courage since relocating to the Old North State. It also won two of the previous three while known as the Western New York Flash.
“It’s tough to win week in and week out, and it’s tough to come in on championship day and win 4-0,” Courage coach Paul Riley said afterward, “especially against a very, very good side that has won many games this year and we haven’t beaten all season.”
The Red Stars, who finished second to the Courage in the regular season standings, were 2-0-1 in head-to-head matchups this year — winning twice in Chicago and playing to a draw their only meeting in Cary.
They came into Sunday’s game riding a six-game winning streak and were armed with league MVP Sam Kerr, who led the NWSL with 18 goals despite missing considerable time representing Australia at the World Cup this summer.
But the Courage defense, led by veteran midfielder Heather O’Reilly, kept Kerr bottled up all afternoon. The only time she had a good look at the goal came when she appeared to break into the clear midway through the first half. But Lynn Williams hustled back to catch her and knock the ball away from behind.
“I think the epitome of the game was when Lynn Williams chased down Sam Kerr midway through the first half,” Riley said. “I think that said a lot about our team and what we’re all about.”
Not satisfied with sitting back and protecting its lead, the Courage (15-5-4) continued to attack throughout.
McDonald turned that pressure into a second goal in the 26th minute when she headed in a corner kick from Williams. Dunn then made it 3-0 with an unassisted tally just before halftime, turning the final 45 minutes into a formality.
Mewis added the exclamation point in the 61st minute on an unlikely assist by goalkeeper Abby Dahlkemper.
The four goals were two more than the Red Stars had allowed in any game this season.
“I thought I would never drink champagne after the World Cup, but, needless to say, I’m probably going to,” Mewis said. “This team worked so hard all year. We earned this. I’m really proud of the girls.”
The celebration was especially poignant for O’Reilly, playing her final professional game before moving into the coaching ranks as an assistant to Anson Dorrance at North Carolina.
The veteran, who has 231 international games with the U.S. National Team who has a World Cup, three Olympic gold medals and two College Cup titles at UNC to her credit, came out of the game to a standing ovation in the 89th minute.
“Heather is a really special player,” teammate Dunn said. “Not everybody gets to go out the way she does.”
“I’ve really had a lot of time to process that this is my last game,” O’Reilly added. “Unlike my international retirement, I didn’t feel like the floodgates were going to open and it was going to super emotional. I feel like I’m in a peaceful and healthy place to hang up my boots.”