By Amy Tennery
RALEIGH, N.C. (Reuters) – With home-field advantage and reigning champion status, the North Carolina Courage are apparent favorites to take home the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) championship on Sunday.
Of course, they would be among the last to tell you that.
The top-seeded squad, competing in their third straight championship since relocating from Western New York, said they are not taking their opponents, Chicago’s fiery Red Stars, lightly.
“We’ve played three games against them, for three games, we’ve out-possessed them, we’ve out-everythinged them in the three games and we haven’t won a game,” said coach Paul Riley. “This is a final so the expectation is it’s going to be a really tricky game.”
The Briton, who has been with the team for four seasons, is quick to shrug off suggestions that they are the favorites, despite going 15-5-4 on the season and winning seven of their eight final regular-season matches.
Riley said Chicago’s pace will be a key challenge, as will containing newly minted league MVP Sam Kerr, who fired in 18 goals during the regular season, an NWSL record.
“Most teams put an extra pass in, or two passes and that enables us to counterpress and get the ball back and this is the one team that doesn’t really do that,” said Riley. “They’re much more direct than a lot of the teams in the league.”
Abby Dahlkemper, a defender with the Courage and member of this year’s World Cup-winning U.S. national team, said her opponents’ tempo was among their greatest threats.
“I think their directness and their pace and the attack is dangerous,” the defender said. “I think they have a really potent, aggressive attack and they score goals.”
Midfielder McCall Zerboni said the championship match would likely come down to “very small margins” and “very small details.”
“I think it’s exciting that we’re number one and they’re number two – that kind of shows the consistency of performance and success all year long and it shows the competitive level of each squad,” said Zerboni.
(Reporting By Amy Tennery; Editing by Daniel Wallis)