Sam Kerr, Red Stars defenders need big game to beat defending champ North Carolina

Though it isn’t Kerr’s first championship match, it could be her last. If that’s the case, she wants to leave it all on the field Sunday against the Courage.

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Red Stars forward Sam Kerr scores against the Portland Thorns in the first half of an NWSL semifinal at SeatGeek Stadium.

Kamil Krzaczynski/AP

The National Women’s Soccer League championship is uncharted territory for the Red Stars.

Except for Sam Kerr, who played for the Western New York Flash in the 2013 final.

“I honestly don’t think it’s that relevant,” Kerr said. “We have girls on our team that have played in a World Cup final. There are much bigger games than the NWSL final. Yuki [Nagasato has] taken a penalty in a World Cup final. Girls have played in bigger moments. For us, it’s just exciting.”

It isn’t her first NWSL championship game, but it could be her last. If that’s the case, Kerr, who reportedly has received lucrative offers to play in Europe, wants to leave it all on the field Sunday against the defending champion North Carolina Courage in Cary, North Carolina.

“It’s probably the most important [game],” Kerr said. “In my career right now, it’s the most important. I don’t have anything other than this game to look forward to.”

The Courage are playing in their fourth consecutive final, including when they were the Flash in 2016. They beat the Red Stars in the semifinals the last two seasons.

“They’ve knocked us out a few times, so hopefully we can get some revenge,” said Kerr, whose team is on a six-game winning streak.

Kerr headlines a matchup that will feature some of the most prominent players in women’s soccer, including 12 World Cup players and nine NWSL Best XI and Second XI selections. The Red Stars will rely heavily on Kerr, but the league’s first two-time MVP isn’t feeling the pressure from anyone but herself.

Kerr, who had 18 goals to lead the league for a third consecutive year, scored four in three games against the Courage this season. North Carolina’s Lynn Williams finished second to Kerr with 12 goals.

“I don’t want to let the girls down,” Kerr said. “I don’t want to let the fans down, and I’m pretty hard on myself when I don’t score, but it’s not really about me scoring.

“We’ve shown that over the last few games. Everyone can score, and if I’m making runs, that’s taking defenders away, that opens up other spaces. I’m happy with that. The main thing on the weekend is that we win. It doesn’t matter how we do it.”

They’ll have to do it without defender Tierna Davidson, who was ruled out after spraining an ankle Thursday in practice. The Red Stars will rely on Julie Ertz, Casey Short and their athletic midfielders to shut down the Courage’s impressive transition game and attack, which helped them lead the league in goals with 54.

North Carolina, led by Williams, Kristen Hamilton and Debinha, is deep offensively. They also have U.S. national-team players Jessica McDonald and Crystal Dunn at forward.

So as important as Kerr will be, the Red Stars could be in trouble if they don’t get a big game from their back line.

“We know how fast and how dynamic they are going forward,” Ertz said. “Trying to take away that part of their game is huge, but it’s going to come down to individual battles. You have to defend when you play North Carolina.”

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