The North Carolina Courage are off to a flying start with 9 points in three games and that means they are undefeated. In the first game of the season North Carolina gutted out a 1-0 win on the road to the Spirit who, despite losing key pieces in the offseason, have shown that they will be tough to breakdown in the early going this year. Last week the Courage never let the 2016 NWSL Shield winning Portland Thorns into the game as the team from the Rose City stubbornly tried to break through the NC press and failed mightily.
This week against Orlando was something all together different. The Pride are still trying to figure out how to work in their new pieces and have started the year off in a Sophomore slump. Neil Morris, the Courage beat reporter for WRAL Sports Fan, reported the frustrations that Pride keeper Ashlyn Harris identified as not putting away chances, not clearing balls on defense, and individuals failing to be effective in the early going this season. The Courage exploited all of these issues for a dominant 3-1 win on Saturday. While the Pride clearly have a lot to work on, let’s look at what we learned from the Courage systematically taking apart Orlando this weekend.
The NC Courage will press you like a $400 juicer
OK so the Juicero is mostly a scam that illustrates that Silicon Valley is in an investment bubble and when it bursts it will probably cause an economic disaster that leads to a weird dystopian society like in the film Hunger Games, but I digress the team is going to press its opponents into sweet useless, wifi enabled juice. Much like the Portland Thorns game last week, the team’s opponents were unable to sustain much of a buildup out of the back outside of a few moments in the match. The difference is that the Pride didn’t stubbornly try to force a style that wasn’t working and resorted to route one to at least mitigate turning the ball over close to their own goal.
Debinha is the best defensive addition the team made
It was concerning, to me at least, that the Courage failed to address the main weakness they had last year: the defense. Last season the team improved greatly when coach Riley moved center back Abby Erceg to defensive midfield and began starting Alanna Kennedy alongside Abby Dahlkemper which added stability and defensive cohesion. In the offseason the team traded Kennedy to Orlando and didn’t replace her in the draft or via transfer.
But Paul Riley has no time for my defensive concerns, he wants to score goals, goals are fun and soccer is a game, games are supposed to be fun, and it has been fun so far. Rather than bringing in a new center back, Riley replaced Kennedy with Erceg, pushed Samantha Mewis and McCall Zerboni back into more defensive roles, and added Debinha, a creative attacking midfielder. The team also added Yuri Kawamura who is playing as the third center back in a 3-5-2 but is really an outside back.
Anyway, who needs center backs? The Courage utilized the skill set that they already had to strengthen the defense and brought in a much needed creative spark to make the offense hum.
Paul Riley is a mad genius
Is this a 3-4-3?
Who does Paul Riley think he is? Me picking my fantasy team? Really this plays like a 3-5-2 but don’t put it past him to use the versatility that the team has. Jaelene Hinkle can slide back into defense on the left side when needed and the notes above about Abby Erceg show what a player with her skills brings to the team. On top of that, the front three of Jess McDonald, Lynn Williams, and Debinha has been shaping up to be the best in the league so far this year.
Riley has shown his tactical flexibility and played a 4-4-2 in the first match with Erceg injured and the team, perhaps struggling to shake away the offseason rust, never really settled into the match but ultimately got three points.
This team will punish your mistakes
That first goal came when Lynn Williams flicked a ball toward the goal that Ashlyn Harris failed to control and deflected into the path of Jess McDonald who tapped the ball in for a 1-0 lead. The team nearly had a second in the 21st minute when the Pride failed to clear a loose ball in the box and Debinha forced Orlando keeper Ashlyn Harris to use her golden gloves in an acrobatic save.
The second goal came when Sam Mewis converted a penalty that Orlando conceded when Laura Alleway flung her left arm at the ball in the box.
Then in the 70th minute this happened:
That play starts innocently enough with McDonald just ever so casually pressing the ball and forcing a pass back to Harris who mishits a one touch pass that is scooped up by Debinha. The Brazilian then made a terrific off balance cross to Lynn Williams who cleated the ball down with her first touch and then smashed it home off of the volley.
In sum: Hey, NWSL teams - when you play the Courage you have to clear the ball as far away from your goal as possible.
It is hard to score on Sabrina D’Angelo
Even with the 95 degree heat index, D’Angelo looked like she had ice cold polar bear blood coursing through her veins. The only goal she gave up this year came against the Pride and it was after both Zebroni and Kawamura failed to close on Camila Periera who had space to send a screaming curler to the back post that D’Angelo watched fly past her fingertips into the net.
While the Pride had an edge in possession, they just managed five shots on goal the entire match so D’Angelo didn’t face a lot of danger. When Orlando did manage to work a ball near her net, she controlled her box brilliantly by winning loose balls, smothering crosses, and punching away potentially dangerous passes. The past three matches have shown why she is increasingly in the starting Canadian National Team goalkeeper conversation.
In sum, any power rankings that don’t put the Courage at the top are wrong. This team is a monster that has to be fed by goals and doesn’t care about possessing the ball. When a team presses like the Courage they don’t need it and with a backline and goal keeper as skilled as the one North Carolina can play other teams are going to have a lot of trouble scoring on the Courage this year and they are going to be a lot of fun to watch all season long.