One thing is already settled going into this week’s match against the Chicago Red Stars, the North Carolina Courage will still be in first place by the end of the weekend no matter the result. After starting the season with four straight wins, the Courage lost last weekend to the Orlando Pride 3-1. For their part, the Chicago Red Stars are 2-1-2 after picking up a draw at home last weekend against the Boston Breakers.
Reviewing the last match: Orlando Pride 3-1 NC Courage
North Carolina will look to get back to the solid defense that have brought them to the top of the table. Orlando managed 12 shots with five on target in the match, but it didn’t matter as three found their way into the net. Perhaps more troubling was that the Pride attack was able to find space behind the defense to make dangerous runs and create chances. In the second half, the Courage were overwhelmed by the Pride attack leading to Abby Erceg receiving her second yellow card in the match.
Going forward, the Courage had some chances in the first half but each team struggled to settle into the game in the first 45 minutes. The brightest spot of the game offensively was a Debinha goal in the 51st minute that drew the Courage back to within one.
Early struggles for the Red Stars
For their part, the Red Stars have failed to regain the form that saw them win third place in the NWSL last year and earn a playoff spot. They have only managed four goals on the season as they have misfired on offense in the early going. However, they are as stingy on defense as ever only having given up four goals. Last week they drew with the Boston Breakers 1-1 as Christen Press managed to score her first goal of the year in the 89th minute to keep Chicago undefeated at home on the year.
What to watch for
The Red Stars returned the core of their team last year and have players like the aforementioned Press along with Jen Hoy and Vanessa DiBernardo to be a real offensive threat in the league this year. One surprise this season has been moving Julie Ertz (nee Johnston) way up the field from center back to center attacking midfielder. So far the move hasn’t yielded an offensive onslaught but Ertz played attacking mid and forward in college so it could just be a matter of time before she rediscovers the attacking form that made her a Top Drawer Soccer player of the season in 2012.
However, Chicago hasn’t shown much evidence that they are about to put together a performance that could surprise the Courage on the road this year. Last weekend they struggled against a better Boston side and were lucky to come away with a draw. The Courage will be missing their captain with Erceg suspended due to the red card she picked up last weekend and Jaelene Hinkle has been in and out of the lineup due to an injury. While it is never a good time to have two starting defenders missing, fortune may favor the Courage with the Red Stars struggling so mightily to begin the year.
The only reason Chicago has managed five points this year is their defense. The Red Stars have only allowed four goals through five games and their backline kept them in the game last weekend. In that match, Rose Lavelle showed that all it takes to score on the best defenses is good positioning and lethal finishing to find the back of the net. While the Red Stars were able to contain Lavelle for most of the game, they will have to spread their awareness to the three headed North Carolina monster of Jess McDonald, Lynn Williams, and Debinha if they want to keep the game within reach this weekend.
With Erceg out and Hinkle doubtful, the Courage will have to make some changes this weekend. Coach Paul Riley has opened up his lineup book and, well, shown how arbitrary it is for a team to use phrases like left back, central midfielder, and trequartista when filling out a lineup sheet. What starts out looking like a 3-5-2 plays something like a 2-1-4-3, the team has even tweeted out a 3-4-3 lineup straight out of the NWSL Fantasy League. That said, Sam Witteman hasn’t been a great substitute for Jaelene Hinkle and I think we’ll see someone new in the starting 11 on Sunday, here’s how I think the team will lineup:
How to watch
NWSL streaming partner go90.com has had some technical issues in the past few matches. The game will be streamed both on nwslsoccer.com and the go90 site. While the technical problems with go90 are frustrating, and perhaps explains why the league announced the streaming deal a week before the season began, this is the best streaming option for the league, the production values are much greater and the broadcasts look much more professional. As the season goes on, I expect the streams to match the quality of the play on the field.
Kickoff: 4PM Sunday May 20 at WakeMed Soccer Park.