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NC Courage playoff preview: Missing McCall Zerboni and the 2017 playoff injuries

Comparing the 2017 playoff run to a 2018 rematch without McCall

McCall Zerboni won’t be available for the playoffs after suffering an elbow injury playing for the USWNT.
Wilf Thorne/

Happy semifinals week, Courage Country! I hope that your hurricane preparations are going well and that you and your loved ones are all somewhere safe. I’m here to take your mind of the impending hurricane with a similarly unpleasant topic. After suffering a broken elbow while starting for the USWNT, McCall Zerboni will have surgery to repair that injury and will be unavailable for the North Carolina Courage in the playoffs.

In this article we will look at the impact that Zerboni’s injury will have on the Courage as they enter the playoffs, and we will also take a look back at the series of injuries that plagued the Courage in the 2017 playoffs. Right now the Courage are scheduled to play on Sunday at 3pm ET, but we will have a weather related article over the next few days.

Surviving without Zerboni

At first glance it would seem like the Courage are doing just fine. They cruised to an easy 5-0 victory over the Houston Dash in their season finale as they broke six separate league records. That Houston squad is very different from the one planning to travel to North Carolina on Sunday to take on the league-champion Courage. For the second-consecutive season the Courage will be hosting the Chicago Red Stars in the first round of the playoffs.

The Red Stars are an extremely strong side with a dominant midfield. Alyssa Mautz, Danielle Colaprico, Vanessa DiBernardo, and Morgan Brian are a scary group of players that have excellent rapport and individual talent. It is unfortunate for Chicago (and the Courage) that DiBernardo and Brian, along with Casey Short, Sam Kerr, and Julie Ertz, were not available for the team earlier in the year. Had those players been available it would likely be a matchup with Portland or Seattle for the Courage instead. Alas, here we are a midfielder down matching up against one of the strongest midfields in the league.

Head coach Paul Riley said a few words about the prospects of going into the playoffs without McCall after the 5-0 win over Houston.

About McCall. It’s going to require everybody to give an extra five percent to be able to make up for her, because she picks off a lot of balls, does a lot of unnoticed work that you don’t realize, and when you watch the game tape, three or four times every week you see how important that work is. And I think Sammy (Samantha Mewis) and Sully (Denise O’Sullivan) were determined to make up for it. I think they took it upon themselves. It’s great to see Sam start to hit her stride, and I think she realized that, with McCall out, she was going to have to bull by the horns and she was going to have to be, you know, for the next game, at least for the next weekend, she was going to have to be the kingpin in that midfield. And Sully, she’s such a good player to play with, because she gets on the ball, she finds space, and she’s very intelligent, and she can defend, too.”

He continued, “You can’t replace McCall, but if you put in an extra five percent we can make up maybe 25 or 30 percent of her. You miss McCall. You miss her leadership in the locker room and on the field.”

It was nice of Paul to write my piece for me. There you have it, that’s the plan. I think what he said about leadership at the end is the big takeaway. If the Courage can score an early goal and open up the game a bit against the Red Stars they should be fine. Their finishing has been improving and unless Chicago goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher has another amazing performance we should be able to put a few good goals into the back of the net. My worry would be that Chicago gets an early goal, a few bounces go against us, and the clock is winding down, who gets the team together and rallies the troops? Remember, back in the first meeting between these two saves when nothing would go in and Naeher made save after save it was Zerboni that scored the late equalizer to earn the Courage a point. It’ll be interesting to see who emerges this time around.

This feels like 2017 all over again

Well, I suppose it does and it doesn’t. The Courage are clearly a better team than they were last year. In 2017 they lost 3-2 to the Orlando Pride in the season finale and lost to Chicago in all three regular season meetings. In 2018 they closed out the season with a 5-0 win and earned one win and two draws against Chicago in the regular season. That said, the looming specter of injuries past is hard to shake.

Last season in the semifinal match against the Red Stars, Debinha injured her shoulder (correction: dislocated her elbow) and had to be subbed out for Kristen Hamilton in the 10th minute of the match. The Courage would still go on to win, but an early sub is always tough on fitness and rhythm. Then in the final against Portland, Tobin Heath tackled defender Taylor Smith injuring her shoulder and forcing her to be subbed out in the 12th minute. In the 39th minute, Hamilton, who got the start for the injured Debinha, suffered a knee injury and had to be replaced. With two early subs wasted and three players scratched from the match with injuries, the Courage would go on to lose 1-0.

So what’s the deal, are we destined for the same fate? From every angle I’d say it’s a resounding no. First, injuries are random and the odds of losing three players in the first half over two games is unbelievably unlucky. Also, even if those exact same injuries were to happen again, the Courage are much better prepared to deal with them.

Consider that this is basically the same roster as 2017. Back then we lost Debinha, Smith, and Hamilton, and those players were replaced by Hamilton, Makenzy Doniak, and Jess McDonald respectively. In 2018 we already lost Zerboni, and she was replaced by O’Sullivan. If we were to lose Merritt Mathias (who replaced Smith) we would replace her with Heather-bleeping-O’Reilly. The same Heather O’Reilly who scored the game-winning goal against Lyon in the ICC Championship Game and started 231 games for the USWNT before retiring. I love Doniak and was devastated when she tore her ACL, but that’s really no contest. Then, if O’Sullivan were to get injured she would be replaced by Kristen Hamilton. Hamilton was a starter in the Western New York Flash’s 2016 championship win over the Washington Spirit and is an extremely talented midfielder. Again, this is an upgrade over bringing in McDonald for a midfielder and having to completely rearrange the lineup on the fly.

Losing McCall was devastating, and like Paul said, she cannot be replaced. This 2018 team is arms and legs better than the 2017 team and is better prepared to deal with injuries. These ladies beat three of the best club teams in the world while missing five of their best players in the ICC Tournament, the should be able to weather a few injuries without missing much of a beat.