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

Andy Mead/ISI Photos
We are part of The Trust Project What is it?

This season has presented some challenges, but head coach Paul Riley (below) has consistently moved his squad in the right direction. After some experimentation with a three-player back line in the spring, the Courage has since used a combination of formations to find success, albeit in different ways than a year ago.

In 2016, the team relied primarily on a direct attack, with the pace of Williams and McDonald up top combining for 24 goals between them.

Mike Gridley/ISI Photos

Mike Gridley/ISI Photos

This year’s team remains blessed with enormous offensive wealth, but the Courage has only scored 26 times this season, good for fifth in the league. Overlooked as the key to the team’s success this year is North Carolina’s defense, which boasts quality in every position. 

The Courage has only given up 14 goals, best in the league. It is currently giving up an average of 0.78 goals against per match, half of the league average of 1.48 goals against.

Abby Dahlkemper and veteran Abby Erceg anchor the backline, and have formed an excellent center-back partnership. The tactical understanding between the two is nearly flawless, executing the necessary pressure and cover whenever opponents do manage to get past the Carolina midfield.

Forced to respect the Courage’s offensive speed and struggling against their high defensive press, opponents rarely bring numbers forward against North Carolina. And, when they do, holding mid Sam Mewis is waiting, sitting just in front of her center backs.

With Zerboni acting as the team’s workhorse in the middle and speedsters Smith and Hinkle patrolling the touchlines as the team’s outside backs, the Courage cause problems across every inch of the field.

Once the Courage forces opponents to cough up possession, it wastes little time transitioning into the attack, often using smart, quick passing combinations between Mewis and Zerboni to connect the lines. The forwards and the wide midfielders then use a series of interchanging runs to find space, forcing opposing defenses to track a dynamic series of attackers.

While Mewis generally sits back during these sequences, starting them from her deeper position in the midfield, when she does work forward, defenses get worried. Time and time again this season, she has scored from distance or cut the opposition in two with her passing.

As the season winds down, several teams will look to derail North Carolina. Portland, loaded with talent and no doubt motivated by last year’s bitter playoff loss, is an obvious contender and will likely be waiting at some point in the playoffs.

Chicago, despite its recent slide, boasts quality in every position and remains firmly in the mix. The Red Stars host the Courage on September 3. Orlando, finally surging behind the partnership of Alex Morgan and Marta, is making a late push this season and will travel to North Carolina on the final day of the season for what could be a preview of the NWSL semifinal a week later.

With a month left in the season and a playoff berth virtually assured, North Carolina looks primed to defend its championship. If the Courage and Riley can keep the magic going, there’s no reason not to expect them in the championship match again this October.

Click here for more of FourFourTwo USA's leading NWSL coverage