<
>

Can Sam Kerr, Red Stars end Courage's bid to repeat as NWSL champions?

Sam Kerr, who is expected to be named NWSL MVP before Sunday's final, leads the Red Stars into their first championship game appearance. Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire

Tierna Davidson was just 14 years old when the National Women's Soccer League played its first championship game in 2013. The Chicago Red Stars rookie and World Cup-winning defender will presumably be on the field when her team plays the North Carolina Courage for the NWSL title Sunday (ESPN and ESPN App, 3:30 p.m. ET).

That's enough time to accumulate history. Enough time that a win would confirm North Carolina's place as the dominant team in league history, two championships to go along with three consecutive regular-season titles.

But it's also enough time to consider Chicago -- playing in its first title game in its fourth consecutive playoff appearance -- overdue for a title. And with the league's top goal soccer, Sam Kerr, and a 2-0-1 record in three games this season against the Courage, there is reason to believe the Red Stars will compete.

So, what are the storylines of the season's finale?

Sam Kerr looks for the last laugh

Sunday's championship game isn't the final Kerr most wanted to play in this year, but that doesn't make it solely a consolation prize. The World Cup was advertised as Australia's moment but instead ended in the blink of an eye. So although she was denied an extended global stage in France, Kerr will be the biggest star on a field full of them this weekend. And she might yet lead a team to a breakthrough championship, albeit the Red Stars instead of the Matildas.

The Golden Boot winner as the NWSL's top scorer for the third year in a row, she'll likely have a second MVP trophy in hand by the time the final kicks off. Kerr's 18 goals this season is six more than North Carolina's Lynn Williams, the only other player in the league in double digits.

- Source: Vlatko Andonovski to replace Jill Ellis as USWNT coach

- How Vlatko Andonovski made a name for himself in the NWSL

- Alex Morgan says she's pregnant with first child

- North Carolina Courage head back to NWSL title game to face Red Stars

- Laughter Permitted podcast: Alex Morgan and Kelley O'Hara

Kerr scored four goals in just three games against the Courage, helping propel Chicago to an unbeaten record against a team that went 15-3-3 against everyone else.

In a league that prides itself on its competitive balance, Kerr stands apart.

"If we don't close her down and we don't disrupt distribution into her and we don't keep her in front of us, we're going to be in serious trouble," Courage coach Paul Riley said this week. "It's not easy because I'm sure every coach in the league says the same thing. ...

"We haven't gotten it right yet, so hopefully we get it right this time."

NWSL fans know the legend well by now. Kerr and Australia were knocked out of the World Cup in a round-of-16 penalty shootout against Norway on June 22. That was Saturday in Nice, France. Before the work week was even half over, she was back in Chicago. Barely a week after the World Cup exit, she scored three goals in a win against Orlando that halted a three-game losing streak.

"Sam internalizes a lot, Sam carries a lot of pressure on herself," Chicago coach Rory Dames said this week. "And I think just getting back in around the group and around the team and the family she has here, after the disappointment of the World Cup, was important for her. She was obviously very exhausted, but we've tried to moderate her rest and given her some time off."

Speculation continues, unconfirmed for the time being, that Kerr will leave the NWSL after seven seasons for European soccer. She arrived from Australia as a teenage prospect and would leave as arguably the best player in the world -- certainly among a group of contenders who can be counted on one hand -- no matter what happens Sunday. But it would certainly be sweeter to end 2019, and possibly her stay in the United States, with a championship that she very much had a hand in creating.

"I can't say she came back driven or with a purpose," Dames said, "Because even if we go on and win Sunday, that's not going to replace what went on in France for her or her teammates there. But I'd say she's been pretty focused and motivated in the two years that she's been here to want to win a championship in this league and with this team.

"I would say she's never lost sight of that and she's always been true to that."

Center (backs) of attention

Chicago's Davidson and Julie Ertz might have been the best center-back pairing in the league over the past month. Which makes it all the more intriguing that Dames wouldn't commit to keeping the World Cup winners together for Sunday's final.

The partnership began after a 3-0 loss to Portland in August that imperiled Chicago's chances for home-field advantage in the playoffs. Ertz previously played the same holding midfield role in which she excelled for the U.S. women in the 2019 World Cup, while Davidson, the No. 1 pick in this year's draft, played extensively as an outside back. The Red Stars allowed just two goals in six games after the recalibration, including a 1-0 semifinal clean sheet against the Thorns.

Ertz, of course, also excelled as a center back in the 2015 World Cup, while Davidson did her best work at Stanford and thus far for the United States in the role. But perhaps reflecting on past success against the Courage and the specific challenges they pose with two athletic forwards in Williams and Jessica McDonald, plus interchangeable midfield presence in Crystal Dunn, Debinha and Sam Mewis, Dames played it coy with regard to his center backs this week.

Perhaps playing some mental chess himself, Riley suggested that would be fine by him.

"I'd rather have [Ertz] in the back, rather than disrupting us in midfield," the Courage coach said. "So I'm happy if she plays in the back, to be perfectly honest with you."

With Abby Dahlkemper on the other side of the field for North Carolina, the two starting center backs for the U.S. women in the 2023 World Cup (when Becky Sauerbrunn will be 38) might well be on the field Sunday. It just isn't clear which two they are or whether they will be playing that position.

Do the Courage still have anything to prove?

Dames and Riley are friends, which is probably why the Red Stars coach didn't even feign diplomacy when told his counterpart attempted to paint his Courage as the underdogs because of the teams' regular-season results. Dames scoffed, pointed to North Carolina's three consecutive regular-season titles and two championship trophies, not to mention the location of the final, and essentially said anyone who believed that needed their head examined.

As much as Riley loves to seize that role, it no longer fits a franchise that has set the bar for the league. But in a sport where artistic merit is never entirely subservient to results, Riley and the Courage still chafe at the idea that they don't win the right way. That they aren't modern enough or elegant enough in their style, instead too reliant on athleticism and smothering the life out of opponents (never mind that those things, too, can be honed into an art form).

North Carolina's predecessor, the Western New York Flash, won the title in 2016, and it's worth noting that roughly half of the Courage's roster was on that team. Back then, the Flash snuck into the playoffs, upset Portland in a wild end-to-end semifinal and survived a penalty shootout in the final. That group, Riley allows, was raw and pragmatic. But four years on, he contends that's still the perception.

"We've become a better tactical team, a better technical team, a better team all the way around," he said. "We play better football. I think sometimes we don't get credit for the football we play. People still think we're run-and-gun. Just because you high press doesn't mean you're run-and-gun."

The NWSL inadvertently fed that complex Thursday with the release of this season's all-league teams. The composition of the Best XI and Second XI raised more than a few eyebrows, with 14 members of the U.S. national team among the 22 selections despite all missing anywhere from 10 to 20 games because of international duty and, in some cases, related injuries. Voting by fans (20%), media (20%), front offices (20%) and players (40%) is taken into account.

Courage players weren't the only ones affected, but the outcome was still that the best team in the regular season had just one first-team selection, Dahlkemper, and three second-team selections, Dunn, Abby Erceg and Kristen Hamilton. The Red Stars had three first-team picks and two second-team picks, with only Ertz and Alyssa Naeher having played limited games.

It all left even Dunn baffled -- she retweeted the league's Best XI graphic, adding, "Ok i just need clarity. This best and second XI are based on THE 2019 NWSL performances? If that's the case, it is very hard to understand." -- by a process that overlooked, among others, worthy candidates such as North Carolina teammates Debinha, Jaelene Hinkle and Williams.

And it left the Courage with one more reason to wonder whether they're getting the credit due.