The NC Courage kick off the 2018 NWSL season in Cary, North Carolina against the Portland Thorns on the Lifetime game of the week. The match will pit the Courage against the team who beat them in a hard fought game to prevent North Carolina from taking home the double. To quickly review, the Courage got to the championship by taking first place early in 2017 and never letting go, including two four game winning streaks during the year. They won NWSL Shield and in the first round of the playoffs, faced a tough test against a Chicago Red Stars team they lost to two times in the regular season.
The year was characterized by a shift in tactics for coach Paul Riley. In 2016 with the Western New York Flash, Riley and his team played exciting soccer where they required the attack to bail out a shaky defense time and again. It worked and the team won the NWSL Championship, but Riley clearly wanted to focus on the defense last year. The team played... well it could be described as less than ambition soccer with much more emphasis put on seeing games out once the team had the lead. Despite that, the Courage are capable of playing at a high tempo and will absolutely press a team to their own goal if they fail to build out of the back. The result in 2017 was a team that only allowed 22 goals in 24 games while putting a decent 38 balls in the onion bag.
The two biggest changes are the departures of Taylor Smith and Ashley Hatch, who were traded for the most significant off season addition - Crystal Dunn. Joining the USWNT regular is midfielder/defender Merritt Mathias. Dunn should expect to start every game for the Courage while Mathias will be an option to replace Smith at right back. In addition, forward Darian Jenkins was named to the final roster, Jenkins was drafted by the Courage last year despite being injured and will look to replace Hatch in the attack most likely as a substitute or spot starter. Defenders Julie King and Allysha Chapman were taken by the team in the Boston Breakers dispersal draft and will look to find time on the backline.
5 players to watch
- Crystal Dunn: This one is a gimmie - Dunn is a versatile attacking player and has already amassed 69 caps with the national team. She has played a variety of positions in her career including midfield and outside back. Coach Riley will have a choice of either playing her alone up top or in some combination with Lynn Williams and Jess McDonald in the attack. The Courage manager has shown himself to be agnostic when it comes to formations at times playing a three center back set up while others preferring a 4-3-3 - so her versatility will certainly be an asset to Riley.
- McCall Zerboni: The midfielder became a key part of the 2017 edition of the Courage and that shouldn’t change in 2018. Zerboni does all of the things that go unnoticed in midfield but are absolutely critical for a team to be successful. Look for Zerboni to continue to be a capable midfield partner for Sam Mewis as the two form the spine of the midfield.
- Debinha/Denise O’Sullivan (aka, whoever is starting at no. 10): The Brazilian international Debinha provided a spark to the Courage last year, but fell out of favor with Riley. In response, the team claimed O’Sullivan from the Houston Dash off of waivers. She found herself a regular for the team and scored the game winning goal against Chicago that sent them to the NWSL Championship. Both are capable no. 10s and have a lot to offer Riley - he may not have a preferred player in the role so expect both to play significant minutes in 2018.
- Merritt Mathais: The defender comes to the Courage thanks to a trade with the Seattle Reign. While she has played midfield, it seems most likely that Riley will start the year with her at right back as a replacement for Taylor Smith. Replacing an emerging talent with the USWNT will be a difficult task for Mathais as she will have to show that the Reign were mistaken to see her as more of a role player and occasional starter.
- Abby Dahlkemper: The center back paired with Abby Erceg to be one of the best defensive tandems in NWSL. However, she showed some weaknesses on the USWNT as detailed by Stars and Stripes FC. Dahlkemper will be looking to address those deficiencies in NWSL as manager Jill Ellis looks to finalize the roster she will take to France in 2019 and if she manages to improve, the Courage will be somehow more impossible to score on, hopefully even against Chicago, as they were last season.
The Courage are one of the best teams in NWSL. They are capable of playing interesting soccer and their press is, frankly, intimidating at times. Teams will continue to have a difficult time scoring on them, though the right side of the defense will be a weak point of the team. Luckily, adding Crystal Dunn means that the Courage will have a player who can turn the game on a single play. The versatility on the roster adds an extra layer of unpredictability that opposing teams will have a difficult time to game plan for. The courage should at least make the playoffs and be contenders to repeat as NWSL Shield winners with a shot to win the cup in 2018.