A year of lineup games has North Carolina ready to claim the NWSL title

Andy Mead-ISI Photos

Paul Riley went to the limits of his playbook this season, instilling the Courage with a number of different options.

It’s not uncommon to see losing teams change lineups, formations, or tactics as they search for a winning combination. What makes the 2017 North Carolina Courage so fascinating is that it frequently did all three this season, and did so on its way to a second straight appearance in the National Women’s Soccer League finals and while winning an NWSL Shield as the top team in the regular season.

Under head coach Paul Riley, North Carolina has toyed with nearly every formation imaginable this year. Early in the campaign, he used a 3-5-2 and a 4-5-1. Late in the season, he managed to deploy three different variations of a 4-4-2, all en route to a league-leading 16 wins.

The old adage of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” hasn’t applied to the Courage this year. Through the adjustments, North Carolina just kept winning, and last weekend, the Courage beat the Chicago Red Stars 1-0 in semifinals to earn a chance at another title.

Against Chicago, the coach used a rarely seen “box” midfield, playing attacking midfielders Denise O’Sullivan and Kristen Hamilton directly in front of holding midfielders Sam Mewis and McCall Zerboni. The exceptionally narrow shape helped North Carolina negate Chicago’s own compact, diamond midfield and gave Courage fullbacks Taylor Smith and Jaelene Hinkle the space they needed to attack Chicago’s flanks at will.

Despite the tight score line, North Carolina dominated the contest, as Riley clearly picked the right tactics. The Courage finished the match with a 19-6 advantage in shots and a 9-1 advantage in corner kicks.

What makes the coach’s approach even more impressive is his ability to do it primarily with American-raised players, infamous for their tactical rigidity. In the United States, soccer is largely known as a “coach’s game,” with managers typically imposing strict roles in stodgy, predictable systems.

American players, over the course of their development, generally grow accustomed to such an approach and demand long periods of time to learn roles in new systems, ask questions, make adjustments, and grow comfortable.

That has not been the case this year in North Carolina.

Developing such tactical flexibility requires an enormous amount of trust between Riley and his players. The coach must trust that his team can work out any challenges or questions in the run of play, a particular problem in the game of soccer because of the difficulty of making adjustments once a half begins.

For their part, the players must also trust Riley. It would be easy for his team to question changes, especially if it was successful the week before. However, these type of weekly adjustments have become part and parcel of North Carolina’s success.

Zerboni, the team’s midfield engine, put it succinctly this week, saying, “It’s easy to trust the best coach in the world, right? For us, we just feel we’re in such good hands.

“We have so much that we can learn from him, and we all know we’re in a place that we’re going to improve as long as we follow what’s being put out for us. It’s a huge tribute also to our players. They’re very coachable. People who don’t want to learn or get better, this is not the place for them. That’s a waste of Paul’s talents and what he can offer everybody.”

Last season, North Carolina, then the Western New York Flash, primarily relied on a direct approach. This year, the Courage has mixed in a fair amount of possession play without forgetting their roots.

“We call it possession with a purpose,” Riley told FourFourTwo earlier this season. “There’s no point, to me, being a possession team if you can’t score goals, and there are two teams in the league that can’t score goals that are possession teams.

“For me, if you’re going to be a possession team, you better be able to penetrate. You better have the other p with you, because if you don’t have the other p with you, you’re in trouble. And we have the other p.”

Riley likes to play the underdog card, repeating it over and over through North Carolina’s playoff run. On its face, the claim is laughable, as the Courage has been in first place for 20 of 22 weeks this season.

However, the coach has also assembled a roster full of players who were initially overlooked, or in some cases, outright disregarded by other teams. This has helped create an underdog mentality among his squad.

Katelyn Rowland came from Kansas City after only earning three appearances in a year and a half. Team captain Abby Erceg arrived from Chicago after being deemed surplus to requirements. Zerboni and Jess McDonald have been journeywomen throughout their careers.

Jaelene Hinkle and Lynn Williams came from second-tier Division I programs. Kristen Hamilton was taken with the last pick in the 2014 NWSL Draft. Taylor Smith went undrafted altogether.

And to top it all off, the Courage picked up O’Sullivan at midseason after the Houston Dash cut her. She scored the late-game winner last week against Chicago.

Assembling this motley crew, Riley has shown faith in his players when other coaches did not and gained his players trust in return. Together, with a fighter’s mentality, North Carolina has run roughshod over the league and sits on the verge of another championship.

In the final, the Courage will meet Portland, who will present problems of its own. With a talented midfield triangle, the Thorns are used to controlling matches and come into the game with the league’s best defense, as well.

On Wednesday, Riley said this weekend’s finale will be a “chess match,” one which, no doubt, is certain to bring yet another wrinkle from the coach’s ever-evolving playbook.

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