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Route Two Soccer: Two key tactical questions for the NWSL Final

Updated: Jan 1, 2020

The North Carolina Courage are in the midst of a dynasty. Despite some early season struggles, they won the Shield again this year, finishing with a goal difference of +31, miles better than anyone else. Last year they obliterated all opposition and took home the title in resounding fashion. They also made the final in 2017, losing narrowly to Portland, and won back in 2016 (as the Western New York Flash). That makes this their fourth straight finals appearance. Their coach may continue to insist to the contrary, but they are the clear favorites to win on Sunday.

The Chicago Red Stars have made the playoffs five straight years, but only won their first playoff match last weekend. They are playing the best soccer they ever produced, with a rock solid backline, one of the best midfields in the world, and two absolutely world-class forwards working in tandem. They also dominated North Carolina in the regular season results, taking seven of nine available points from the champions.

However, there are several asterisks on that record. North Carolina dominated the first game, while in the second Chicago took advantage of a World Cup-ravaged NC lineup, and were lucky to face a goalkeeper, Katelyn Rowland, in impossibly bad form, scoring on their only three shots on goal. The mid-July showdown, however, really was an impressive performance and a genuine indicator of Chicago’s potential to not merely scrounge a result against Carolina but to actually outplay them.

Whether they will repeat that performance on Sunday is unknown, of course, but I see two key questions that help to define their chances.

Can Chicago use width to open up space for an attack?

North Carolina has not varied their basic tactical setup much in the past several years. They almost always set up in a 4222 ‘box’ system, with two strikers, two attacking midfielders, and two deeper-lying midfielders who share attacking and defensive duties. It’s certainly not a perfect system, but it’s been remarkably resilient. The biggest weakness of this approach is the lack of midfield width. All four players in the midfield line are free to roam a bit, but generally take up central roles. And if they do drift wide, they risk exposing holes in the vacated middle.

However, very few teams have found a way to exploit this area, for three reasons.

First, the combination of athleticism and intelligence of North Carolina’s midfield quarter is unmatched in the league. They move so quickly to collapse on weak points that it’s the rare opponent who finds the time to take advantage.

Second, the Courage’s incredible attacking array also goes a long way to securing their defensive unit. Most teams are too worried about buttressing their defense against the all-out Carolina assault to even think about how to spring a counter.

Third, North Carolina has the best attacking fullbacks in the league, severely reducing the need for wide attackers in the midfield. The key here is left back Jaelene Hinkle who regularly is among the league leaders in assists and chances created, and has been no different this year, finishing third in the league this year with six assists. But her teammate Merritt Mathias contributed quite a lot too, with five assists of her own from the right. It looked like the Courage might struggle a bit once Mathias went down with an ACL tear last month, but they’ve barely missed a beat thanks to makeshift right back Heather O’Reilly (which isn’t really that surprising, given her lengthy and stellar career in more advanced roles).

All that said, if North Carolina has a weakness to be attacked, it’s here. The key is to target the space behind the fullbacks with precision strikes, dragging central players out wide and opening up space in the middle for the forwards to create a bit. This has the added benefit of putting the Courage’s excellent center back pairing of Abby Dahlkemper and Abby Erceg under pressure. Both are superb defenders, but both are also at their weakest when asked to range outside their box. Dahlkemper in particular is susceptible to getting turned out wide.

That left side, with Dahlkemper and O’Reilly, is probably the best zone to attack. And Chicago is uniquely well set up to take advantage, with an in-form Yuki Nagasato able to link up with excellent passers like Vanessa DiBernardo and Morgan Brian in the midfield. And obviously there is no player in the league who is more capable of converting half-chances into goals than Sam Kerr.

The other reason to think favorably about Chicago’s potential to attack in this fashion is the speed with which they can move from deep possession to a shot. This is important because any dawdling gives North Carolina’s attackers time to recover and begin aggressively pressuring those in possession, usually breaking up the threat or even retaking possession through the counter-press.

There are no certainties against North Carolina. They are versatile, flexible, and incredibly fit. Beating them requires good ideas and good execution. But if they are going to be defeated, it makes sense to target their weaknesses, and Chicago is well designed to do so.

How will Chicago use Julie Ertz?

Chicago made a big shift in early September, dropping Julie Ertz from the midfield to the backline. This was a big move for two reasons. First, it allowed them to replace the struggling Katie Naughton with one of the world’s best defenders, patching up the one weak hole in what is otherwise the league’s most solid backline. Second, it gave them the freedom to establish a more progressive and possession-driven style of play.

Ertz is a great all-around player but her weakest skills are in possession and passing. But those are only relative weaknesses. Compared to the average central midfielder, she’s not a great passer. But compared to the average center back, she is. By moving her back, therefore, Chicago improved their passing quality in two critical positions. With Ertz and Davidson in the center of their defense, they have two high-skill players for the position, who can then combine with Danielle Colaprico and Morgan Brian—arguably the most technical central midfield pairing in the league.

This isn’t a pure win-win situation. By removing Ertz from the midfield, Chicago has exposed themselves more in the center of the park. Ertz is among the best ball-winners in the world, but at center back she is far more constrained and can’t leap into nearly as many tackles. Brian and Colaprico are both good defensive players, but their skills are more in shepherding play by controlling space and less in directly challenging the opposition.

The result of playing Ertz in the backline, therefore, is a more stable final line, but less potential for creating turnovers higher up the field. The choice is whether to encourage a more measured game in which possession is traded back and forth relatively slowly, or a more frenetic game characterized by wild twists and turns. Neither approach is intrinsically superior, but given Chicago’s personnel, they should probably prefer the former, especially against North Carolina.

The Courage’s greatest strength is in transition. They are unparalleled in their collective movement and resulting capacity to ruthlessly exploit space. North Carolina on the move is a terrifying sight to behold. But they are (relatively) weaker against a stable, organized defense, which often forces them into low-percentage shots from distance. They also depend relatively little on creative possession from their attacking midfielders. Both Dunn and Debinha are generally just dangerous, if not more so, without the ball.

Ertz’s disruptive abilities as a midfielder probably offer less value under these conditions. North Carolina doesn’t rely much on complicated passing maneuvers that are susceptible to being broken up. And they absolutely relish a fast-paced game with a lot of aggressive movement. Their whole approach is to capitalize on bulk. Opponents who up the tempo and try to force play absolutely risk playing into their hands.

This isn’t a pure open-and-shut case. A lot depends on which Katie Naughton is available on Sunday. At this time last year she looked like a fringe national team quality defender, with good instincts and good physicality. But for most of this year, she looked well off the pace, making lots of mistakes both small and large. If the Red Stars can get the good version of Naughton, there’s a case for loading up the central midfield with Ertz, Colaprico, Brian, and DiBernardo and doing everything possible to muck up the game. Fight to a standstill there, count on your strong defensive fullbacks to lock down their counterparts from Carolina, kick long balls at Kerr when you have the chance, and hope she can magic up a goal. It wouldn’t be a pretty game, but you only have to look back to the 2017 final to see Portland forcing a physical disruptive game on the Courage and scraping a victory in the process. Chicago certainly has the ability to do the same if they want to attempt it.

But on balance, Chicago look like a much better team with Ertz in the backline. And not only does this setup allow them to play better in general, it also gives them the chance to dictate play better, something that is absolutely critical if they hope to ride the waves of the North Carolina attack.