Even from the top, Paul Riley has North Carolina thinking like an underdog

Mike Gridley-ISI Photos

The rest of the NWSL doesn't buy it, but for Riley and the Courage, there's still much to prove.

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If you are buying what Paul Riley and his North Carolina Courage players are selling, the National Women’s Soccer League’s underdog is one win away from a championship.

That’s a tough sell, of course, when the Courage won the NWSL Shield as the league’s best team over the course of the regular season, locking up the No. 1 seed in the playoffs. It’s an even harder sell when, for all intents and purposes, North Carolina is the defending league champion.

But that’s the message Riley has made stick with his team, and that Courage players have bought into it against such logic speaks to the lore of Riley’s management skills. He is exceptional at the intangible art of building and motivating a team.

Playing under a different name last year, this team fit that mold of underdog perfectly. The then Western New York Flash was a group of young, mostly unproven players who, at the start of the 2016 season, were expected to sit near the bottom of the league. They had just come off a wretched 2015 season that ended poorly both on and off the field, providing the impetus for Riley’s arrival on the scene, initially, as a short-term fixer. Even as the Flash stayed in the mix throughout the year, detractors remained, with Western New York exceeding expectations in a muddled picture that didn’t have a true frontrunner.

That formula was exactly the motivation Riley needed. Splashed on the Flash’s locker room walls were the preseason predictions of every blog with a valid URL that had picked the Flash to finish last. Riley reminded everyone of that as Western New York went into Portland and won an epic semifinal, 4-3, in extra time last year before winning the league title in a penalty-kick shootout.

This year’s team is new in name only. The NWSL says that the franchise’s history technically starts this year, upon arrival in its new market, but the core of this team is almost entirely unchanged from the one which stood on the podium last October in Houston. It set the pace in the league from the opening weekend of the season.

In his previous stop with the Portland Thorns, coaching the league’s most talented team, Riley’s underdog message rang hollow. Portland looked too good to fail, but after a sixth-place finish in 2015 followed a semifinal exit the year before, Portland and Riley parted ways, the coach’s approach having failed to resonate the way it did so wonderfully with Women’s Professional Soccer’s Philadelphia Independence. That Philly team, finalists in both 2010 and 2011, was every bit the cliché of David to the Goliaths that were the higher-spending, Marta-led teams of FC Gold Pride and, ironically, the Western New York Flash.

Now, like he did in Portland, Riley has too much talent in North Carolina to sell to the general public as truly the underdog. He tried to do so this week, both before and after the match, but with a wry smile. He has masterfully instilled that mentality in this North Carolina team, which is every bit as talented as Portland sides of past and present, but is still young enough to buy into being the Philadelphia-esque spoiler, whether the top seed or not.

Riley’s player management skills are what set him apart from other coaches. There are coaches who players see as bosses, and there are coaches who players will step in front of a car for. Riley’s players, past and present, will tell you the Englishman is the latter. They did so last year ahead of the final, and they will do so again this week.

That Denise O’Sullivan scored the game-winning goal in the 89th minute of Sunday’s semifinal captures just that. O’Sullivan was a shrewd midseason pickup off waivers after she couldn’t find playing time with the Houston Dash. Riley, already with a league-leading team, saw talent and an opportunity, but most of all, he saw a player that fit with his team.

O’Sullivan stepped in and partially displaced Brazilian midfielder Debinha in the Courage’s midfield, giving North Carolina even more two-way grit in the middle of the park. After Debinha had to exit Sunday’s match with a reported elbow injury in the opening minutes, O’Sullivan stepped up seamlessly, as she has since her arrival in late July.

Players are ultimately tasked with executing a gameplan and winning a match; coaches set them up for success or failure. In Riley, North Carolina also has the coach who has proven time and again to be the best man manager the American women’s game has known. Perhaps it’s the combination of his Liverpool and New York roots to feel like there is always somebody, somewhere, who is slighting him. Perceived disrespect is not a new nor unsuccessful concept for athletic motivation.

Courage players and staff alike openly welcomed Chicago as a semifinal opponent. The Red Stars were North Carolina’s Achilles heel in the regular season, beating the Courage all three times and accounting for nearly half of the No. 1 seed’s losses on the year. That brief history made the underdog card stick for the semifinals.

And it will have its merits again heading into a final against Portland, in particular. The Thorns are the envy of women’s soccer worldwide, and if you don’t absolutely love them, you most likely most totally hate them. That’s the nature of big, successful clubs, and that’s the type of narrative that a team looking to keep a chip on its shoulder will dig into.

Riley will be reminded by Thorns fans in the buildup to this final that his time in Portland was not fruitful. And while he already went into Providence Park last year and ruined the Thorns’ Shield-winning season, he’ll welcome that chatter, because it will motivate him once more.

It motivates his players, too, which is all that really matters. They are the underdogs they need to be, even if the rest of us don’t buy it.

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