2019 NWSL Championship will be the culmination of historic year for women’s soccer

“It’s a great matchup for this league,” Red Stars midfielder Morgan Brian said. “I personally think the two best teams have made it to the final.”

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Chicago Red Stars forward Sam Kerr (20) celebrates with teammates after scoring against the Portland Thorns FC during the first half of an NWSL playoffs semi-final soccer match Sunday, Oct. 20, 2019, in Bridgeview, Ill.

Chicago Red Stars forward Sam Kerr (20) celebrates with teammates after scoring against the Portland Thorns FC during the first half of an NWSL playoffs semi-final soccer match Sunday, Oct. 20, 2019, in Bridgeview, Ill.

Kamil Krzaczynski/AP

The last time the Red Stars and the North Carolina Courage met on the pitch was in front of 17,388 fans at SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeview on the heels of the U.S. women’s national team’s historic World Cup title.

The emotion that consumed the stadium as the 12 Cup players from the Red Stars and the Courage were announced perfectly encapsulated the momentous year 2019 has been for women’s soccer.

That afternoon in July carried a combination of gratitude for where the sport is at, excitement for where it’s headed and utter joy for the way it’s finally being appreciated.

Nearly three months later, it’s fitting that these two teams will close out the year by playing for the championship of the National Women’s Soccer League.

“It’s a great matchup for this league,” midfielder Morgan Brian said. “I personally think the two best teams have made it to the final. It’s definitely going to be a back-and-forth game with a lot of scoring opportunities on both ends and a great display of soccer.”

The Courage and the Red Stars are league leaders in goals, assists, shots and shots on goal. Both teams boast a lethal attack game. Sam Kerr and Yuki Nagasato lead the charge for the Red Stars.

Kerr, who was named the NWSL’s MVP on Friday, led the league with 18 goals in the regular season, while the Courage’s Lynn Williams and Kristen Hamilton had 12 and nine, respectively. Debinha rounds out their attack, leading North Carolina in assists.

The championship has all the makings of a fast-paced, high-intensity match.

“I think fully loaded, we match up really well against [the Red Stars],” Courage coach Paul Riley said. “I think in the other games there was a bit of a mismatch. I think had Sam Kerr not played in those games we might have won them.”

Despite winning two of the last three championships and winning the NWSL Shield for the third consecutive year, Riley said his team has an underdog mentality heading into this match.

The Courage were winless against the Red Stars during the regular season (0-2-1) while neither team was at full -capacity.

Regardless, it’s inaccurate to describe the reigning NWSL champions, who also have the home-field advantage, as -underdogs.

“I would be hard-pressed to believe his team even still believes that narrative,” Red Stars coach Rory Dames said. “I think anybody going to play North Carolina in North Carolina is an underdog, but we definitely won’t go in there like the little engine thatcould. We believe in who we are, we believe in the group we have.”

The championship will be the culmination of many things.

For the NWSL, it’s the final chapter in a season of record-breaking attendance. And the league announced it is expanding to Louisville, Kentucky, in 2021.

For women’s soccer as a whole, it was a year that will be remembered as a turning point for the sport and its athletes.

For the Red Stars, Sunday will be the conclusion of a season that has taken this organization to new heights, including its first NWSL championship appearance in its seven-year history.

“Regardless of the year it’s been leading into [the NWSL championship], this has been the goal coming into the season,” Alyssa Naeher said.

“To be on the doorstep of the championship game is . . .”

Naeher briefly paused to find the words to accurately -describe her emotions.

“We checked that first box of winning the semifinal and celebrated that a little bit and now we’re refocused and ready for the championship coming up. That’s our only focus.”

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