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Recapping postseason: North Carolina Courage repeat as NWSL champions, Andonovski to coach USWNT

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2019 NWSL Championship Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Despite the Portland Thorns’ disappointing semifinal loss to the Chicago Red Stars, soccer goes on. The championship match last weekend proved an exhibition of the utter dominance of the North Carolina Courage as they blew past the Red Stars with a 4-0 scoreline to defend their championship title. “This is a great feeling,” said Courage head coach Paul Riley, “There’s nothing like winning a championship.”

Although it was Chicago who opened the match with the early chance — Vanessa DiBernardo was denied by a Stephanie Labbe tip — the Courage soon took control of the match. In the fourth minute, Lynn Williams took the ball up the center of the field, laying it wide for Jess McDonald’s run. McDonald swung the ball across the face of goal to meet Debinha’s far post run. Although Sarah Gorden was able to block the initial shot, the ball fell back to the feet of Debinha. She tried her luck again, saw it deflected, and managed to bury the rebound, putting the Courage up 1-0. “Going down early is always hard,” said Danielle Colaprico after the match, and it showed in the way the remainder of game played out.

From there on, North Carolina took control of the half, putting Chicago under a relentless barrage of attacking pressure. “We talked a lot about that left-hand side and what we would do,” said Riley. “We thought there was space in behind Casey [Short] and around [Katie] Naughton.”

The Courage were able to exploit that space throughout the match: McDonald found her way onto the scoresheet in the 26th minute as Lynn Williams picked up a wide clearance and beat Gorden to get a cross off. McDonald rose above Savannah McCaskill to head the ball out of Alyssa Naeher’s reach and double the Courage’s lead.

Despite the scoreline, the best individual performances for Chicago came from players in their defensive line; both Naeher and Julie Ertz pulled out a number of fantastic stops. Red Stars head coach Rory Dames specifically praised Ertz as “by far our best player today.” Acknowledging the obvious element of bias: “I think Julie Ertz is the best player in the world.”

On the other side of the field, Chicago struggled massively in the attack. They had trouble connecting with Sam Kerr, and promising spells of possession were often broken up by Denise O’Sullivan or Abby Erceg — or even Williams or Debinha on occasion. Riley explained that it was the different dimensions of Debinha’s game, not just her goalscoring, that led to her being named MVP of the match. “It’s all the little things she did today, he said, “and she did some fantastic things … I thought she was brilliant today.”

Although they were two goals down, it seemed as if Chicago would have a chance to regroup at halftime and try to force their way back into the game. However, Crystal Dunn had other plans. In the fifth minute of stoppage time, Debinha and Sam Mewis worked the ball to the end line, before Debinha tapped it back to meet Dunn’s near-post run. Although Julie Ertz tried to shield her off the ball, Naeher’s low punch fell back to Dunn who was able to slip the ball in just seconds before the conclusion of the half. “For Crystal to kind of scrap and claw and get that one before half, that was beautiful,” said Heather O’Reilly.

The Red Stars’ fate was all but sealed at that point. Despite putting together a significantly stronger performance in the second 45 — aided by the halftime substitution of Katie Johnson for McCaskill — the Courage cemented their victory in the 61st minute when Mewis was able to direct Abby Dahlkemper’s free kick into goal.

Elsewhere around the league:

Reign FC head coach Vlatko Andonovski is the next head coach of the USWNT, the teams announced Monday. Andonovski has been in the league since its inaugural season, leading FC Kansas City to two consecutive championship titles. When the team folded, he was brought into Reign FC, bringing his team to playoffs in both seasons as head coach. Overall, Andonovski has posted a 68-47-43 record in the league and was voted NWSL Coach of the Year in both 2013 and 2019.

“During his time with Reign FC, Vlatko exhibited the many attributes that earned him the well-deserved opportunity to coach the U.S. Women’s National Team,” Reign FC owner Bill Predmore said in the club’s press release, “he has an unmatched work ethic, an incredible intellect coupled with an insatiable thirst for knowledge about the game, and a quiet kindness and humility that makes him not just a great coach, but a great person. He is an inspiring leader, a fierce competitor, and a brilliant strategist and tactician.”

One of the players who has developed tremendously under Andonovski’s coaching is NWSL Rookie of the Year Bethany Balcer. Famously coming into the league undrafted out of an NAIA school, Balcer took full advantage of the injuries that riddled Reign FC’s 2019 campaign. She appeared in every one of Tacoma’s games and scored six goals on the year, the most of any rookie.

Goals were the name of the game in 2019 awards; Sam Kerr scored a record 18 times during the regular season — and once during playoffs — to claim both Golden Boot and MVP honors. The titles mark Kerr’s third consecutive and second overall times winning the awards, respectively. Kerr is the only player to win Golden Boot or MVP multiple times in NWSL history — a testament to her goalscoring legacy in the league.

The Utah Royals’ Becky Sauerbrunn was named Defender of the Year for 2019, the fourth time she has won the award. The league’s goalkeeper of the year has not yet been revealed.

The NWSL also released a Best and Second XI for the 2019 season. The teams proved controversial among players, media, and fans; a number of those named played limited minutes and several MVP finalsts were excluded from the team. The players named to the XXII include:

2019 NWSL Best XI

Goalkeeper: Aubrey Bledsoe

Defenders: Abby Dahlkemper, Ali Krieger, Becky Sauerbrunn, Casey Short

Midfielders: Julie Ertz, Lindsey Horan, Rose Lavelle

Forwards: Tobin Heath, Sam Kerr, Christen Press

2019 NWSL Second XI

Goalkeeper: Alyssa Naeher

Defenders: Lauren Barnes, Abby Erceg, Kelley O’Hara, Emily Sonnett

Midfielders: Bethany Balcer, Crystal Dunn, Yuki Nagasato

Forwards: Kristen Hamilton, Carli Lloyd, Megan Rapinoe