NC Courage look to defend NWSL title

The league’s championship game will be played Sunday at Cary’s Sahlen Stadium

The North Carolina Courage celebrate their 3-0 win over Portland in last year’s NWSL championship game. The Courage will try and defend their title Sunday in Cary against the Chicago Red Stars. (Mark Graves / The Oregonian via AP)

The National Women’s Soccer League championship match would have been played at Cary’s Sahlen’s Stadium no matter which teams qualified to play in it.

It was a decision based on the quality of the facility and the size of the local soccer community in the Triangle. But it also didn’t hurt that there was a good chance the home side would be one of the participating teams.

The North Carolina Courage didn’t disappoint, beating Reign FC of Seattle 4-1 in overtime on Sunday to advance to the title game for the third time in as many years as the franchise has been located in Cary.

The Courage will take on the Chicago Red Stars, a 1-0 winner against the Portland Thorns FC, in a nationally televised 3:30 p.m. kickoff on ESPN on Sunday.

“I’ve been part of a lot of really special teams in terms of the intangibles, but I think that this group kind of beats all in terms of everybody works for each other,” former North Carolina and U.S. National Team star Heather O’Reilly, who will retire after Sunday’s match, said following the semifinal win.

“There’s no egos. It’s all about accountability and doing your part for the team. It’s really a nice environment to be part of.”

Although the Courage is favored because of its championship pedigree, a first-place finish in the regular season standings and a decided home-field advantage — having gone 9-0-4 at Sahlen’s Stadium — Sunday’s match is anything but a walkover.

The Red Stars actually won the season series between the teams, handing the Courage two of its five losses — 3-1 on May 12 and 2-1 on June 29 in Chicago — while playing to a 1-1 draw in Cary on the way to a second-place finish.

Despite those results, Reign FC coach Vlatko Andonovski believes that Chicago will have its work cut out for it with the trophy on the line.

“They’re great,” Andonovski said of the Courage after it beat his team on Sunday. “They’re awesome. Best team in the league, hands-down.”

While that might be the case, the road back to the NWSL championship game wasn’t as easy as Sunday’s 4-1 final score. The game was scoreless through most of regulation play until O’Reilly gave the Courage a 1-0 lead on a penalty kick in the 88th minute.

The lead didn’t last long, though. Reign FC got the equalizer late in stoppage time on a goal by Ifeoma Onumonu to send the game into overtime.

But that only seemed to light a fire under the Courage, which scored three times in the extra periods (the NWSL doesn’t play sudden death) to sock away the victory. Brazilian World Cup star Debinha — on her 28th birthday — got the first goal on a free kick, followed by a Reign FC own goal and a clincher from another World Cup veteran, Crystal Dunn.

Dunn’s goal was set up by fellow U.S. National Team teammate Samantha Mewis.

“When you give up a late goal like that, it can affect the psyche of a team,” Courage coach Paul Riley said. “I told them at the end of the game, ‘It’s a mighty challenge.’ It was kind of a hole we put ourselves in, but you only get better by being in those types of holes. They showed a lot of character in overtime.”

By doing so, they earned a shot at defending their league championship on their home field.

Just as the league drew it up.