North Carolina Courage bulldoze Chicago Red Stars to win second straight NWSL championship

Caitlin Murray
Debinha (center) celebrates after scoring the opening goal in the North Carolina Courage's 4-0 victory over the Chicago Red Stars in the NWSL Championship on Sunday. (Getty)
Debinha (center) celebrates after scoring the opening goal in the North Carolina Courage's 4-0 victory over the Chicago Red Stars in the NWSL Championship on Sunday. (Getty)

The North Carolina Courage are the NWSL champions yet again.

Capping off another dominant season, the Courage steamrolled past the Chicago Red Stars on Sunday, 4-0, to win back-to-back trophies and further solidify their spot as the greatest team the young league has ever seen.

It took the Courage a mere three minutes and 30 seconds to strike first.

Lynn Williams laid a ball off to Jessica McDonald racing up the flank, and McDonald was given the space to cross past the face of goal to Debinha. Although Debinha's initial shot was blocked, she followed up to slot it home:

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Debinha celebrated by doing her best imitation of the shrug emoji, and you've got to wonder if the gesture wasn't squarely aimed at a befuddling and controversial Best XI selection that excluded Debinha and other MVP candidates.

North Carolina continued to attack in waves until the Courage broke through again in the 26th minute as a Williams cross found the head of McDonald:

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Right before halftime, Crystal Dunn finished on a scramble in the box to send the home side into the locker room up three goals.

Samantha Mewis extended the Courage's lead to four in the 62nd minute. Center back Abby Dahlkemper lofted a ball toward goal that a towering Mewis ran onto it and headed past Chicago goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher:

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The 4-0 win was the biggest margin for an NWSL championship in the league's seven-season existence.

The North Carolina Courage are officially a dynasty

Courage coach Paul Riley blusters at the notion of his team being a powerhouse.

Over the years, his go-to psychological tactic has been to refer to his team as the “underdog” at all times. It may draw eye-rolls and snickers from opponents and reporters alike, but it has clearly worked. He used the U-word multiple times in his pregame press conferences ahead of Sunday's NWSL final.

But the irony is that his tactic has worked so well that his team should now be referred to as a “dynasty.”

Under Riley, the Courage have won the last three NWSL Shields, which goes to the team with the best regular season record and is probably the better measure of the best team in the league. But his team has also won three championships in the last four years, including when the team played as the Western New York Flash in 2016.

Given the NWSL's parity and level of quality compared to the leagues in the rest of the world, the Courage's run certainly raises the specter that the North Carolina club could be the best in the world. FIFA needs to start a Women's Club World Cup to settle it, but the Courage did win the Women's ICC last year and, again, based on the parity the Courage face that European teams do not, it's at least up for debate.

The game mattered, and that bodes well for the NWSL's future

It's been no secret that the NWSL has had its share of front office challenges this year, and the NWSL still has a lot of work to do in improving its marketing and communications efforts.

But the NWSL championship reinforced that, problems aside, the trajectory of the NWSL and women's soccer in America remains strong. A sellout crowd in Cary, North Carolina helped the final enjoy a big-game feeling that was particularly notable in a year that included a World Cup.

The two teams that made the NWSL Championship were filled with USWNT stars who played just as well and just as hard for their clubs after they got back from the World Cup and seemed to really care about the NWSL. That's what a final should be.

“All our players want to play and be here,” Riley said on the eve of the championship, echoing comments Red Stars coach Rory Dames made. “I wish every national team player wanted to be. There's a few that don't want to be in their markets and help the league. Every single player on that World Cup roster should want to get back and help their clubs.”

For the title-deciding game to feel like a high-stakes matchup that both sides desperately wanted to win, even with the World Cup in the rearview, is a positive sign for the league's growing importance in the soccer landscape.

Have we seen the last of Sam Kerr (right) with the Chicago Red Stars? (Getty)
Have we seen the last of Sam Kerr (right) with the Chicago Red Stars? (Getty)

Was this Samantha Kerr's last game?

All eyes were on Samantha Kerr, the league's MVP and golden boot winner, but it was a frustrating day for the Chicago Red Stars striker.

In the first half, she could be seen screaming and wildly gesticulating at teammate Savannah McCaskill after an errant pass. McCaskill came out at halftime, but Kerr's fortunes didn't improve from there as she failed to put a well-placed Casey Short cross on frame.

Despite her poor NWSL championship, Kerr has been the league's best player all year, and arguably one of the best strikers in the world several years running, even if you wouldn’t know it judging by major awards.

The Australian striker's special quality makes the NWSL final all the more disappointing as the prospect looms that Kerr might not return to the league next season.

Rumors abound that Kerr is off to Europe, where she can not only wedge herself into the conversation for FIFA's player of the year or the Ballon d'Or, but also earn a major payday. Because of the NWSL's modest salary cap structure, it felt like only a matter of time before Kerr followed the money.

But NWSL president Amanda Duffy said at halftime of the game on ESPN that the league is looking at a new compensation model, which would allow the NWSL to attract top international talent. Whether that would look like the MLS system of having Designated Players or something else remains to be seen.

Were you watching, new USWNT coach?

The worst-kept secret in the NWSL has been that Reign FC coach Vlatko Andonovski will be named the next coach of the U.S. women's national team, taking over for Jill Ellis, who stepped down earlier this month. The BBC reported the hire three weeks ago.

The question that looms is how Andonovski will change the USWNT player pool going into the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and the NWSL final certainly added some food for thought.

Williams could never stick under Ellis, despite her high level of production in the NWSL. On Sunday, Williams again showed what her speed and work rate can do for a team, as she had a hand in the team's first-half goals.

But there are other USWNT prospects who would be better off if Andonovski wasn't paying too close attention.

Casey Short, who has made every single NWSL Team of the Month in 2019, had a rough outing as Riley admitted at halftime that his team was finding a lot of joy down her side. Indeed, Short was culpable on the Courage's first goal, tucking in way too centrally and failing to close down the flank. She almost made up for it in the 89th minute, hitting the crossbar on a shot.

The NWSL has certainly solidified itself as the primary pool of talent for the USWNT, both at the coach and player level, and the level of play Sunday showed why.

Caitlin Murray is a contributor to Yahoo Sports and her book about the U.S. women’s national team, The National Team: The Inside Story of the Women Who Changed Soccer, is out now. Follow her on Twitter @caitlinmurr.

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