Who'll stop North Carolina? Courage is on course for an NWSL repeat

Andy Mead/ISI Photos

Making light of a new name, new location and stiff competition among the NWSL elite, 2016 champion North Carolina is on top again. Here's the recipe.

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Five points clear at the top of the table with six games left to play, the North Carolina Courage look destined for a return to the National Women’s Soccer League playoffs and is the current front-runner to win the NWSL Shield.

Coming off its 2016 championship, the Courage picked up right where it left off. Weathering an offseason move from New York with little trouble, the team has amassed an impressive 39 points from just 18 games in 2017 and is 10-2-0 since the beginning of June.

North Carolina’s recent success, however, belies where the club — then the Western New York Flash — sat at the beginning of 2016. Heading into last season, few expected the Flash to do much of anything. After all, it had finished a disappointing seventh out of nine in 2015, only managed to notch 23 points in a 20-game season and dealt away its two biggest names, U.S. women's national team players Sydney Leroux and Whitney Engen.

The Flash dropped three of its first five games at the outset of the 2016 season. Then, a dramatic change occurred. A midseason offensive explosion, marked by 22 goals in a seven-game stretch, led to six wins, 18 points and a charge right into the thick of the playoff hunt.

Despite a 1-2-5 swoon to finish off the year, the team surprised everyone again, beating the heavily-favored Portland Thorns on the road in the NWSL semifinals, and then the Washington Spirit a week later to claim the title.

Andy Mead/ISI Photos

Andy Mead/ISI Photos

This season, the Courage has shown a marked contrast, becoming one of the most consistent teams in the league. Gone are the ups and downs, now replaced by long winning streaks and a squad earning an average of 2.2 points per game, compared to 1.6 points per game a year ago.

Last year many fans and pundits never quite bought into the Flash, some arguing that the team had only found its moderate success due to a favorable schedule, which included four "local rivalries" against the bottom-dwelling Boston Breakers.

The same logic applied to budding star Lynn Williams (above), who scored her way to a Golden Boot and the league’s MVP award, but she had not yet achieved recognition as one of the league’s premier players.

This year, no one is questioning the Courage, or the team's quality. With over a month left in the season, North Carolina has put itself in position to clinch a playoff spot this weekend when it travels to Texas to take on the Houston Dash.

The core of the Courage’s current success was built at the 2015 NWSL draft. Credited in large part to the genius of former technical director Charlie Naimo, the team grabbed Abby Dahlkemper, Sam Mewis, Lynn Williams and Jaelene Hinkle that year — all of whom have become top players in the league. And goalkeeper Sabrina D’Angelo, a third-round pick, saved three penalties for the Flash in last year’s final.

After a year of seasoning, and with the addition of Jessica McDonald, Taylor Smith, Abby Erceg, and McCall Zerboni, the Flash had grown themselves from also-rans to champions.

NEXT: The tactical formula that's made North Carolina so tough to beat