As the final whistle blew Sunday, the 9,218 fans at SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeview let out a cheer that was five years in the making.
The Red Stars finally broke through in their fifth consecutive semifinal game, beating the Portland Thorns 1-0. They’ll play in their first NWSL championship Sunday against the North Carolina Courage in Cary, North Carolina.
“It’s nice to finally get there,” Red Stars coach Rory Dames said. “We’ve been close, but I’d be lying if I said we’ve accomplished all that we want to do this year.”
Last week, midfielder Danielle Colaprico said this was the best Red Stars team she has been a part of. It showed early when the Red Stars took their first lead in a semifinal game. In the eighth minute, Yuki Nagasato connected with Sam Kerr, who buried the ball in the back of the net.
“The first 15 minutes was really high pressure from both teams,” said Kerr, who had missed a chance a couple minutes before. “I felt like we were controlling the better chances. I knew there would be more, and anytime Yuki gets on the ball, I know I’m probably in on goal.”
Kerr said she didn’t get overly excited about her goal because she thought there would be more. It turns out it was all the Red Stars needed.
Kerr and Nagasato have combined for a special season. Kerr broke her own NWSL record with 18 goals, earning her third consecutive Golden Boot. Nagasato finished with an NWSL career high eight assists, seven of them resulting in a goal by Kerr.
The Red Stars hadn’t beaten the Thorns since 2013. In three meetings this season, the Thorns outscored the Red Stars 10-4, including two 3-0 victories. Goalie Alyssa Naeher said they take that kind of thing personally.
In the final 15 minutes, the Thorns sent everything they had at Naeher and the back line but came up short.
“Portland was sending a lot of numbers forward,” Naeher said. “We kind of had to weather the storm there.”
Dames celebrated for what he said was 10 minutes before shifting his focus to the defending-champion Courage, who finished first in the regular season, five points ahead of the second-place Red Stars.
The Red Stars had three goals this season: make the playoffs, host a semifinal game and win the league title.
They have one box left to check off.
“I think honestly, last year, the loss in the semifinals, we felt like we kind of let ourselves down,” Kerr said. “We’d worked so hard. Everyone just kind of came back with a different mentality that this was going to be our year.
“We’ve stuck together. People have come in and out all year, and it’s just been about the team. We’ve got a lot of big personalities on our team but no big egos.”