The North Carolina Courage are finally back in Cary! After over a month on the road where the Courage earned an amazing three wins and one draw, the team finally heads home to play in front of their loving fans at Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park. It’s been a long month, but the team returns home having defended their undefeated record from Washington to Orlando and from Portland to Houston. The game on Saturday marks the start of the second half of the season, and being undefeated feels amazing as we welcome Utah Royals FC back to North Carolina.
In the last regular season match before the FIFA break, the Courage traveled down to Texas shorthanded and managed to gut out a draw against the Houston Dash with six starters missing due to international duty. The ragtag group of players, many of whom were getting their first game minutes all year, kept the game close all night and it came down to rookie Frannie Crouse sending a rocket into the top-netting to get the 1-1 draw in the 80th minute. Crouse was getting her first minutes of the season.
Now the Courage, bolstered by their gritty win and the return of their teammates, are ready to face off against Utah together.
Avenging a disappointing draw
Saturday will be the second time that the Royals have made their way to North Carolina. In the first meeting, two defensive mistakes by Abby Dahlkemper and Abby Erceg allowed the Royals to take a 2-1 lead in the second half after Merritt Mathias hit an unbelievable shot from 30 yards out to get the team on top in the 6th minute. Like they do so often, the Courage kept fighting and Crystal Dunn scored in the 80th minute after a missed clear by Utah goalkeeper Abby Smith. The draw felt bittersweet as it broke the four-game winning streak that opened the season.
Utah is a different team now compared to the first meeting. USWNT defender Kelly O’Hara suffered a hamstring injury and is still a few weeks away from getting back into the lineup. In her absence, Brooke Elby has stepped up on defense, but she doesn’t bring the same attacking presence that O’Hara does. The Royals do have Diana Matheson and Amy Rodriguez back to full health, while both of those players were late-game substitutions the last time the two teams faced off. The biggest addition has probably been Australian midfielder Katrina Gorry, who joined the teams a few week back and adds aggression to the midfield.
All of that said, the Utah offense has been lackluster this season. They generate very few quality chances on goal and have scored just 9 goals this season. That number puts the Royals barely ahead of the last-place Sky Blue FC and far behind the rest of the league. The lack of goals has kept the Royals to just three wins on the year. The defense, on the other hand, is phenomenal. They have allowed a league-best 8 goals this season over 10 games played. If the Royals managed to get a win in North Carolina they would potentially improve to third place on the league table, as they have a game in hand over their closest competition.
Physical advantages for the Courage
Both sides are composed of extremely talented players, but when it comes to physical attributes the Courage have the clear advantage. North Carolina holds a size, speed and fitness advantage through all three thirds of the field. On the attack, the Courage can use the height and strength of Sam Mewis, Lynn Williams, Jess McDonald and Erceg to win balls in the box of free kicks, and they can use their speed to blow past the back line with players like Crystal Dunn.
Midfield is probably where the Courage hold the greatest advantage. Even with the addition of Gorry, Mewis and Debinha were both absent from the previous meeting with Utah, and when coupled with McCall Zerboni and Denise O’Sullivan they should be able to clamp down and stop most Utah attacks before they start. While the defense made two costly errors in the last match, Mathias and Jaelene Hinkle on the wings are more than up to the task against the lackluster width of the Royals attack, and Dahlkemper and Erceg have the size to control the box against a very short Utah front line.
The Courage need to come out and play their game. They need to put a pair of goals in the back of the net early and then clamp down and counterattack in the second half. They have a knack for giving up goals in the first 20 minutes of the second half, but they are deadly in the final 20 minutes. Thanks to their unparalleled fitness, the team has scored a goal after the 69th minute in 7 out of 12 games this season.
UPDATE (11:45 am): The injury report has been posted and Abby Dahlkemper is listed as OUT after picking up a knee injury while training with the USWNT. In her absence, Paul Riley will go with either Kaleigh Kurtz or Yuri Kawamura at the center. My gut says that Kurtz will get the nod and her third start at center back this season. She has played the full game in both of the matches she started, at Washington and at Houston. Here is a new projected lineup. Williams is listed as questionable, so I have her as a sub:
How to watch
The game will take place at 7:00 pm ET at Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, NC. It will be broadcast for free on Go90.com and the Go90 app.