On Saturday night at Sahlen’s Stadium the North Carolina Courage will be crowned the NWSL regular season champions for the second consecutive season, but first they will have to face off against the Orlando Pride. This will be the third game between the teams this season, and the Courage have come away with 4-3 and 3-0 wins in Orlando already this season. That first match was one of the greatest NWSL matches of 2018 and the second was part of a five-game winning streak that followed North Carolina’s only loss of the season. With the recent trip to the governor's mansion, the Shield presentation, and Alex Morgan coming to town, this projects to be one of the highest attended matches of the season.
Orlando desperate and on the back foot
This match has no bearing on the playoff positioning of the Courage, who have already clinched the #1 seed, but this game is everything for Orlando. The Pride are holding on to a tenuous playoff position, but all of their closest competition has a game in hand with just a few games left on the docket.
Orlando is in an especially precarious position after they fell 2-0 to Portland Thorns FC last weekend which came on the heels of a devastating 2-2 draw against Sky Blue FC. While they wouldn’t be outright eliminated with a loss tomorrow, the reality is that they would be well behind the eight-ball with just two games remaining.
Orlando’s strength is, obviously, their offense. Alex Morgan, Marta, Sydney Leroux, Rachel Hill and Chioma Ubogagu has all contributed meaningfully to the offense this season, and defender Alanna Kennedy has been a devastating target on set pieces. The Pride have scored 29 goals this season, third best in the league, and they have a varied group of attackers that combine to create truly inspired opportunities. This team presents one of the best challenges to defenses around the league, and they are one of just three teams to have scored multiple goals in a game against North Carolina this season.
The defense, on the other hand, has been woeful. They have allowed 30 goals, third worst in the league, despite having, on paper, a solid defensive lineup. Ashlyn Harris has been mediocre all year (although you wouldn’t know it if you were looking at Save of the Week awards), and Ali Krieger seems to have lost a step. With so many offensive minded players on the field, the midfield struggles to break up opposing attacks and the defense can’t keep a consistent shape. This should be a fun match, but it’s one the Courage should win.
Projecting the Courage lineup
The last two matches for North Carolina have been good but not great. Specifically, the second half of both matches have felt sluggish, and Paul Riley has been trying to mix up the lineup to rest players with knocks and fatigue. With three games remaining on the schedule, I’d like to see a lineup start to gel and a substitute rotation come into clear focus. McCall Zerboni, who didn’t start last week, is still listed as questionable with an ankle sprain, so there’s a good chance she won’t play again on Saturday. Riley seems like he wants to let her get 100% match fit, but that’s only a guess.
I am genuinely curious about what will happen in the playoffs with everyone healthy. I know that Samantha Mewis is an excellent talent in the midfield, but the team hasn’t felt the same in the last few matches with her there. I would selfishly like to see Debinha, Dunn, O’Sullivan, and Zerboni playing in that opening playoff match, but I’m sure that Paul will put the best team on the field.
How to watch and chasing records
The Courage will play at 7:00 pm ET on Saturday, August 18 in Cary, NC at WakeMed Soccer Park. Gates open at 6, so get there early if you are sitting in General Admission. This game seems like it will be packed.
A few records to look out for as the season winds down: Most wins in a season (16 - the Courage have 15 now), most goals in a season (50 - the Courage have 43 now), best goal differential (+30 - the Courage have +27), fewest goals against in a season (19 - the Courage have 16), most shutouts in a season (11 - the Courage have 9), most points in a season (54 - the Courage have 50), and fewest losses in a season (2 - the Courage have just 1).