The NC Courage are right back where they were to end the 2017 regular season - at the top of the table. The team is undefeated with four wins and a draw as they sit with 13 points, five ahead of the Chicago Red Stars. North Carolina has done it thanks to its stout defense and some timely scoring. The team has also had to rely on its depth with Sam Mewis still recovering from an injury suffered with the US Women’s National team and Debinha with Brazil on National Team duty for the Copa America Femenina. The Brazilian, by the way, starred for her country on their way to winning the tournament.
While overall the team has been successful, the Courage have also given fans perhaps a moment or two to worry in the early going this season. Their game against Washington showed that the team still needed to find defensive cohesion, and the draw at home to Utah illustrated that perhaps Paul Riley needs to pick a starting goalkeeper and stick with her. Still, Crystal Dunn has fit in with the team perfectly starting on the left side of the midfield in a 4-4-2 formation. In addition, Jess McDonald and Lynn Williams are leading the NWSL in shots with 14 and 21 respectively and the team has managed to keep three clean sheets on the year.
As the Courage take off for their second road game of 2018, the team will look to maintain their defensive cohesion and find a way to turn their aptitude for getting shots into goals.
Houston we have a... well, you know the rest
The Houston Dash were subject to the biggest offseason drama in NWSL when a trade for Christen Press fell though. The player was not happy with the idea of playing in Houston and opted instead to join Kopparbergs/Göteborg FC in Sweden. However, the team did add Kristie Mewis and Kealia Ohai is working her way back from an ACL injury. New manager Vera Pauw is still working on finding how to get the best out of her team and the result has been that the Dash have just two draws and two losses in their four games this year.
In their last match, Houston traveled to Chicago where they quickly found themselves down 2-0 to the Red Stars after just 11 minutes. The Dash never settled into the game and a 74th minute goal by Sofia Huerta effectively sealed the match for Chicago, though the result can hardly said to have ever been in doubt. Houston struggled badly in the game and did not manage a shot on goal. The team will obviously have their work cut out for them against an undefeated NC Courage side.
Choices for the Courage
For their part, North Carolina will come into the game the best team in NWSL. Paul Riley has perhaps uncharacteristically stuck to the same lineup week in and week out. The team has preferred a 4-4-2 diamond through the first five games of the season. Without Sam Mewis to shield the backline, the four midfield formation has allowed the team to compensate without a true no. 6 in the center of the pitch. With her working back to full fitness, Riley will have more flexibility when it comes to choosing a lineup. In addition, the potential return of Debinha to the lineup will give him options in the attack with her as a no. 10 or winger.
Defensively, Riley needs to make a decision when it comes to starting goalkeeper. The howlers from Katelyn Rowland last weekend should have him considering giving Sabrina D’Angelo the starting keeper gloves heading into an away match that the team should be favored in. Still, with Riley it is difficult to say exactly what he will do when it comes to his lineup choices.
What is sure is that the team will be pressing the Dash. With the Chicago Red Stars easily able to score two quick goals and take control of the game against Houston last weekend, the Courage should look to force early mistakes and dominate their opponents from the opening whistle.
As far as how they might lineup, I am willing to go out on a limb and predict that the Courage will look to build a little more possession this weekend.
All of this rests on Mewis being ready for a full 90 minutes of play, without her the Courage lack a no. 6 to help cover the backline when the outside backs join in the attack. Expect McDonald and Debinha to get some minutes off of the bench with Darian Jenkins also getting a chance to find some playing time as a sub.
How to watch
Kickoff 3:30PM on Lifetime TV.