North Carolina Courage leave no doubt with NWSL championship rout of Red Stars

CARY, N.C. -- It could have been a better spectacle for the full house in attendance and the national television audience at home. There might have been more drama if the first goal hadn't come before some of those fans were even in their seats inside WakeMed Soccer Park.

But those things would have been mirages, misrepresentations of what actually happened on not just this field but fields across the league this season. And last season, for that matter.

It could have been a classic. That wasn't what a team for the ages had in mind.

This is who the North Carolina Courage are in American soccer, 4-0 winners against the Chicago Red Stars in Sunday's National Women's Soccer League championship game. North Carolina won its second consecutive championship to go with three consecutive regular-season titles. (Most of the players also won a title in 2016 as members of the Western New York Flash franchise that became the Courage.)

Chicago held out longer than most, unbeaten in three games between the teams this season entering the final, but it couldn't hold out forever.

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Answering her curious omission this week from the all-league teams, Brazilian midfielder Debinha put the Courage in front in the fourth minute. Jessica McDonald added a second goal midway through the opening half. By the time Crystal Dunn cleaned up a scramble in front with a goal in first-half stoppage time, the outcome was sealed.

Sam Mewis capped the scoring with a second-half header on service from Abby Dahlkemper, allowing the Courage to break the championship game scoring record.

The same record they set in a 3-0 win a year ago, naturally.

"We were on the back foot from the get-go tonight, credit to them," Red Stars coach Rory Dames said. "It definitely took us a good 15 to 20 minutes to settle in, and by that time, we were already chasing against a team you don't want to be chasing against."

Asked this week that inevitable pre-championship question, what her team needed to do to win, Sam Kerr smirked and good-naturedly offered the inevitable answer. Score more goals.

Yeah, about that.

With their international players around for most of the 2018 season, the Courage outscored opponents 53-17 in the regular season and swept to a title. With most of those internationals absent for long stretches this summer, including four members of the U.S. women's national team, the Courage outscored opponents 54-23 in the regular season and swept to a title.

The Courage scored 107 goals the past two seasons. No other team scored more than 80.

That Kerr's math was simple made it no easier for the Red Stars to achieve.

It would be a mistake to suggest tactics don't play a role, to chalk it all up to intangibles and character. North Carolina coach Paul Riley said the core group won their first title in 2016, when the Flash snuck into the playoffs as the fourth seed, on little more than guile. Not so now. This team led the league in possession. Its midfield box, Sunday at its best with Mewis and Denise O'Sullivan deployed behind Debinha and Dunn for the first time as a quartet against Chicago this season, is devilish for opponents to deal with.

It mattered, too, that Chicago was without Tierna Davidson, the World Cup winner whose pairing with Julie Ertz over the past month solidified the back line. The same back line that struggled to deal with McDonald's cross in the fourth minute that Debinha eventually put in the net.

But so much of what the Courage do well comes down to matters beyond the tangible -- to the energy and force with which they do, well, everything. Such as when four or five players chased down Kerr in one of the rare moments the league MVP had the ball when the game was still in the balance, Lynn Williams sprinting 30 yards to win the ball.

"I think the epitome of the game for me was when Lynn Williams chased down Sam Kerr midway through the first half," Riley said. "I think that says a lot about our team and what we're all about, that we all pitched in today to stop Sam Kerr from receiving the ball, to stop her from causing us trouble."

It's in waves of players storming the goal when McDonald or Williams pushed the ball down Chicago's vulnerable wings.

And it was Debinha playing like a star in all facets of the game to earn game MVP honors for more than the opening goal. Riley said she's the best Brazilian player in the world at the moment by far, something that has been unthinkable of anyone not named Marta for going on 15 years. And something that certainly wasn't true of her all-around game when she got to North Carolina two years ago focused only on attacking.

"First, I'm Brazilian, everyone knows," she joked of any initial hesitance to commit to North Carolina's pressing ways. "I improved my fitness and it helped me, so I could help the team defensively and in the attack."

Players improve playing for the Courage. They have to.

Sunday marked the final game of Heather O'Reilly's career, one that brought her NCAA, Olympic and World Cup titles before she ever signed with the Courage last season. A game that drew to a close with a fitting standing ovation when she came off in the final minute. But after returning from a stint with Arsenal last summer to the state she calls home and in which she excelled in college, O'Reilly noticed two things that stood out even to someone with her resume.

First, a relentlessly positive attitude. Not faux positivity but the genuine stuff from people like McCall Zerboni and Dunn.

The second thing was the conditioning.

"People were so fit and so fast and worked so hard, I couldn't believe it," said O'Reilly, who started Sunday in the unfamiliar outside back role she filled ably down the stretch. "I'm obviously coming from UNC and the U.S. national team and places that have prided themselves on working hard in training. But just from minute one in warmup, everybody is plugged in."

That carried them through a season in which it would have been easy for it to fall apart. It would have been easy for the players seen sparingly Sunday, names such as Kristen Hamilton and Cari Rocarro, to let things slip when the internationals were away on World Cup duty. It would have been easy for Dahlkemper, Dunn, Mewis and McDonald to coast just a little after winning the World Cup. But this wouldn't be the dynasty that it is if those things happened here.

Even if that makes for finals without much drama.

"I honestly feel like I didn't really leave college when I come back to this team," Dunn said this week. "Playing at UNC, it was all about effort, your attitude every day and just wanting to compete. When I come to this team, it was the same thing. It was about how do you empty your tank every single day, knowing every training matters so much that you want to give your all.

"Then do it again the next day."

Or the next season.