By Amy Tennery
RALEIGH, North Carolina (Reuters) – Shaking off adversity has become a defining feature of the battle-hardened Chicago Red Stars, who face a tall task taking on hometown favorite North Carolina Courage for the top prize in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) on Sunday.
The team has faced down more than its fair share of bitter disappointment, falling in the semifinal rounds every year from 2015 through 2018, with the Courage dispatching the Red Stars back-to-back in the two most recent seasons.
“To get over that hump in the semifinal was big for us. But we’re by no means satisfied with being here,” said coach Rory Dames. “We understand how hard it is to get to this game, so we’re going to make the most of it.”
The team has had its share of frustration this season as well, with an otherwise stellar year clouded by injuries, including star defender Tierna Davidson, who on Friday was ruled out of the championship game with an ankle sprain.
“We’re kind of a ‘next person up’ team. It’s just something you deal with and you move on,” said Dames, whose team arrived in North Carolina on the heels of a six-game winning streak.
“The next person that comes in and gets the responsibility has to got to perform to the level and the standards we have, and I think the group’s done a great job of doing that throughout the year,” he said.
Goalie Alyssa Naeher, who claimed the spotlight in France as part of the World Cup-winning U.S. women’s national team this summer, said adaptability has been part of the Red Stars’ philosophy from the start of the year.
“We knew coming into this season, it was going to take all 20 players on the roster and then different obviously players getting called into national team placement,” Naeher said. “We have 24 games to get a lot of people different experiences so that whoever’s called upon and whatever time, they’re ready.”
Chicago’s flexibility is backed up by two of the strongest offensive players in the NWSL, with MVP Sam Kerr playing off of forward Yūki Nagasato, who led the league in assists.
“Any time I don’t score I feel like I’ve let the team down, whether we’ve won or not,” said Kerr, who broke the record this year for most regular season goals.
“Obviously this game it’s not going to come down to one player, no matter how good the player is,” Kerr said. “I think the team, as a whole, in both teams, whoever plays better is going to win.”
(Reporting by Amy Tennery; Editing by Leslie Adler)