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NC Courage vs. Seattle Reign FC: Match preview

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A battle for first place

Craig Mitchelldyer/isiphotos.com

The North Carolina Courage have started 3-0-0 for the second year in a row, and on Wednesday night they will put their undefeated streak on the line at home against the Seattle Reign FC. The Courage are coming off a 4-2 road victory over the Washington Spirit on Saturday. The offense finally started converting their offensive opportunities after scoring just two goals on over thirty shots the previous two games. The defense, on the other hand, took a step back after allowing zero goals in their first two matches they were scored on after just three minutes of play. Both sides of the ball will have to be on point if they want to earn their fourth win on the season against the second-place Seattle Reign.

Surveying the Reign

The Reign are having themselves a good start to the season. Led by start USWNT midfielder Megan Rapinoe, the team won their home opener 2-1 over the Spirit before going on the road last weekend where they beat Sky Blue FC 1-0 in New Jersey on Sunday. The Reign are the only team in the league other than the Courage to have won all of their matches to this point in the season, but new head coach Vlatko Andonovski will face his toughest test of the season this evening.

The Reign underwent a few changes this offseason. The biggest change came early in the offseason when Laura Harvey resigned as the head coach of Seattle and was replaced by Andonovski. In a strange twist, Harvey ended up joining the Utah Royals FC, which was formed after Andnovski’s old team, Kansas City FC, folded. Over the ensuing two months, goalkeeper Michelle Betos came back to the team and 2017 starting keeper Haley Kopmeyer was traded to Orlando. The Reign also added English international Jodie Taylor to their lineup to improve their offense, and signed defenders Christen Westphal, Megan Oyster and Danish international Theresa Nielsen to bolster the back line. Finally, the team traded for USWNT midfielder Allie Long to help bridge the gap between the defense and forwards. Long, although she has fallen out of favor on the National Team, is a superb holding midfielder.

Despite these positive additions for Seattle, they will have two distinct disadvantages in this match. The first is that the Courage played on Saturday in Maryland and are traveling home for the upcoming match while the Reign played on Sunday in New Jersey and will be the visiting team again. In all major sports it is notoriously difficult to travel from the West coast to the East coast for a match, but playing two games in four days on the road while your opponent enjoys an extra day of rest is especially brutal. To make things more difficult, Seattle lost Megan Rapinoe, their best playmaker, for the match due to a hamstring injury suffered on the rainy pitch last weekend. Kiersten Dallstream will likely replace Rapinoe in the lineup, but she will have big shoes to fill in that role. Of the three goals that Seattle has scored this season, Rapinoe has scored two and assisted on one.

In the absence of their best offensive weapon, Seattle will rely on Welsh attacking midfielder Jess Fishlock to become the major playmaker. Fishlock, Taylor and defender Lauren Barnes all played for Melbourne City FC together in the Westfield W-League this summer where they won the Grand Final, so there is chemistry already built to utilize in this match. The goal for Seattle will be to do everything they can to run out the clock and try to steal a result on the road against the best team in the league on a short week. I anticipate that they will play defensively and look for opportunities to counterattack with Fishlock and Taylor.

Courage Lineup Prediction

When I spoke to Paul Riley after the Spirit match on Saturday he said very bluntly “at this time in the season, to be honest with you, I don’t mind playing anybody that’s fit enough. Anybody that’s got good form will play.” That philosophy fits perfectly with how he designed his lineups during the midweek games last season, so this lineup is nothing more than a blind shot in the dark at who will play starting minutes.

If the lineup looks weird to you, it should. All last season, when the Courage played three games in a week Paul Riley would shift the team into a more midfield-heavy system and give starting minutes to new players. Katelyn Rowland made her first start last season in a Wednesday match against Sky Blue FC, so seeing her start this game would be in line with history. Alysha Chapman got her first minutes for the Courage at right back last weekend, and there is a good chance she will get the start this game. We know that Sam Mewis will play, and I think she will be fit enough to get about 60 minutes as a starter before being replaced by Liz Eddy a little after halftime. Riley specifically mentioned those two players getting minutes in this match. The changeup top, with Jenkins coming in for McDonald, just makes good sense. The substitute forward always started the midweek match last season, and Jenkins will likely be replaced at the 65-minute mark.

The hardest part of the lineup for Riley will be knowing that he has to remove Mewis. I’m sure he would like to give Hinkle a rest, but with one of his three substitutions being absorbed by Mewis it is important to have the necessary substitutions if Jenkins, Speck or Chapman aren’t fitting into the team chemistry. Despite mixing up the lineup the Courage always had good success during their midweek games last year and are undefeated in team history against the Seattle Reign. With Megan Rapinoe out of this match and the Courage getting healthier, North Carolina should be able to win their fourth straight game to start the 2018 NWSL season.

How to watch

Kickoff: Wednesday, April 18 at 7:00 pm - streaming on www.go90.com