As the National Women’s Soccer League enters its fifth season, the defending champion Western New York Flash have moved to Cary, North Carolina. The team is being re-branded the North Carolina Courage by new owner Stephen Malik, who also owns North Carolina FC of the NASL. Women’s soccer fans may remember the Carolina Courage who played in the Women’s United Soccer Association from 2001-2003, that club’s crest is echoed in the crest of the NC Courage with the lion featured prominently. The NWSL season is slated to start in April and Dirty South Soccer will be covering the team. For now, get to know some key players, take a look at the new players joining the team from the 2017 draft, recap the 2016 season, and check out some of the big story lines around the team.
Lynn Williams: Forward - The reigning NWSL MVP tied with Houston Dash forward Kealia Ohai for most goals with eleven and added five assists. Williams also has four caps with the USWNT and is participating in the January camp being held currently. Watch Williams bury a goal against Houston in week 15.
Jess McDonald: Forward/Attacking Midfielder - McDonald flourished last season in Rochester scoring ten goals and notching seven assists. She showed her prowess as an aerial threat and gave opponents fits on set pieces all season long. McDonald is with teammate Lynn Williams representing Carolina at the USWNT January camp. Here McDonald shows off her abilities and heads home a goal against the Portland Thorns.
Samantha Mewis: Midfielder - Mewis is a talented and versatile midfielder who can play both as a creative #10 or as a defensive midfielder in the #6 role. Her older sister Kristie is a winger for the Washington Spirit. Watch Mewis shake her defender and draw Western New York even with the Washington Spirit in the NWSL Championship game.
Abby Erceg: Midfielder - NC Courage and New Zealand National Team Captain Abby Erceg was moved from defense to holding midfield by coach Paul Reilly in May. The move stabilized the WNY midfield and helped shield the defense. Erceg has the most caps of any New Zealand National Team player and represented her country in both the 2015 World Cup and 2016 Olympic tournaments. Here she is knocking a rebound in for a goal against the Seattle Reign.
Abby Dahlkemper: Defender - The UCLA grad solidified her role as the starting center back for the Flash at the beginning of last season and anchored the line throughout 2016 earning the team’s Defender of the Year Award. Dahlkemper was an integral part of a bend, but don’t break (OK sometimes it broke but the offense bailed them out) defense. Watch Dahlkemper assists teammate Jess McDonald for a goal against Seattle.
2017 NWSL Draft
The NC Courage took Ashley Hatch, a forward from BYU, with the second pick in the NWSL draft. Hatch showed her goal scoring nous with the Cougars scoring 47 goals in her college career. She has featured with the USWNT youth set up and has one cap with the senior national team. Hatch is the kind of player that defenders can’t allow an inch of space for her to get a shot off because she will do things like this:
With the seventh pick North Carolina took another forward, Darian Jenkins from UCLA. Jenkins is recovering from a broken fibula, but that didn’t stop the Courage from taking her with their second pick in the draft.
In the second round, the Courage selected Claire Wagner, a center back from Clemson. Wagner is returning home to Cary to play for the Courage. While at Clemson, she was part of the class that turned the program around and saw it reach the NCAA Tournament after a long absence.
The team’s final pick was Nebraska forward Jaycie Johnson who recently underwent an ACL surgery. Johnson led the Huskers in scoring for 3 of her 4 seasons with the team and is its sixth all time leading scorer.
The Flash had the type of season you might expect from a team that earned the last playoff spot by winning the final match of the year. Western New York started the season earning just six points from the first five games but then went on to win six of their next seven matches. Down the stretch the team went 1-5-2, but those eight points were enough to secure the fourth and final place in the post-season. WNY faced off against the NWSL Shield winning Portland Thorns in the semi-final round of the playoffs in a game that featured seven goals and needed extra-time to determine the winner. The Flash emerged victorious and took on the Washington Spirit in the NWSL Championship Game. The game started with two quick goals but settled in and went to extra-time. Spirit forward Crystal Dunn scored in the first minute of the extra period and Washington seemed to have secured a title until an equalizer in the 124th minute by Lynn Williams sent the game to penalties. The Flash bested the Spirit 3-2 in the shootout to win the NWSL Championship to end the game.
The NWSL is a very accessible league with all of its games broadcast free on YouTube (with the exception of the ones carried by major networks). Below are some of the memorable matches from WNY in 2016:
Western New York Flash vs. Chicago Red Stars: The Flash showed off their depth as both teams were missing key players due to international callups before the Olympics
Houston Dash vs. Western New York Flash: A wild game that WNY had to battle back from with some last minute heroics
NWSL Semi Final Portland Thorns vs. Western New York Flash: The most exciting NWSL game of the season for me - it featured extra-time and 7 goals
NWSL Championship Washington Spirit vs. Western New York Flash: After a fast start and two quick goals, this one settled in and both teams played a conservative second half until two late goals sent it to extra-time and eventually penalties.
What to watch for
The club’s role in the HB2 debate: North Carolina’s HB2 law, which restricts people who identify as transgender from using their chosen restroom among other things, has led other sports teams and leagues to take action in response to the bill. The NBA has moved the All-Star Game from North Carolina and the NCAA moved several championship games out of the state. In a recent interview with Jonathan Tannenwald of philly.com, NC Courage general manager Curt Johnson said that the club wants the law repealed and that NWSL commissioner Jeff Plush supports their stance. It is yet to be seen if the bill will discourage players from wanting to join the team and possibly live in North Carolina.
Return of head coach Paul Reilly: Currently coach Reilly is not under contract with the club and it is unclear if he is pursuing other options or if the club has other plans for the head coaching position. The team will reportedly make a decision in the next few weeks about Reilly’s future in North Carolina.
Location: Being based in North Carolina’s Research Triangle is a tremendous advantage for an NWSL club. The team will be located near UNC, which has won 21 NCAA Women’s Soccer Tournament Championships, and will be able to scout some of the top youth talent in the nation.
Possible role in MLS team bid: Owner Stephen Malik has made no secret that he is interested in joining MLS. With the league also looking to possibly expand its relationship with the NWSL, adding the Courage to the FC North Carolina soccer family may be a way to demonstrate to MLS that he is ready to take the next step with that league.
USWNT players contract negotiation: As of now, contract negotiations are still ongoing between the USWNT players and the U.S. Soccer Federation. Each side must give 60 days notice in the case that the players strike or the federation locks them out. If there is a work stoppage it is unclear how the NWSL will proceed this season since many American players are paid directly by the USSF in order to reduce costs for the league and are under contract with USSF rather than the NWSL.