On Saturday night at 7:30 p.m., the North Carolina Courage will host the Houston Dash in the final regular season match for both teams. The Courage have already secured the #1 seed and a home playoff berth (that will take place at 3:00 p.m. the following Sunday) while Houston has already been eliminated from contention. Even with playoff implications off the table, this should still be an important game for both teams.
Houston’s success shocked in 2018
In the lead up to the 2018 season, the Dash were widely regarded to be the worst team in the NWSL. Christen Press moved to Sweden to avoid playing for the squad, the lost Carli Lloyd in the trade that brought them Press, and they had a new head coach named Vera Pauw who made the questionable move of bringing in two South African players to fill international slots. Pauw, having formerly been the South African Women’s National Team coach, was undeniably qualified, but things got off to a rocky start.
As she struggled with awkward lineups, Houston and Pauw earned two draws and three losses to start the season before finally winning their first game of the season against Sky Blue FC. Through the first nine matches, Houston would go 1W-4D-4L. Then things changed.
In a home game against Seattle Reign FC, the second-place team in the league, Houston scored a 92nd-minute goal to earn a 2-1 win. After starting the season with just 7 points in 9 games, Houston would go on to earn 8W-1D-5L (25 points) over the next 14 games. Unfortunately for the Dash, their inability to shut down good teams like Seattle and Portland meant that they were unable to overcome their early-season deficits.
Houston has been able to make a few key moves that strengthened their team over the final few months of the season. First, Pauw got to know her players better and adjusted the lineup accordingly. This has allowed Rachel Daly to move into an attacking role where she has scored 10 goals after starting the season on defense. The team traded for defender Allysha Chapman from the Courage and added a pair of Australian internationals, defender Clare Polkinghorne and striker Kyah Simon. The most influential move came around the midway point of the season when the Dash were able to get Sofia Huerta and Taylor Comeau from the Chicago Red Stars in a three-team trade that would send Christen Press to Utah Royals FC. The combination of personnel and lineup changes have worked harmoniously, and the Dash have been much improved from the efforts.
In their last few matches, Houston has come out with an extremely aggressive lineup. They have Veronica Latsko playing center forward with Kealia Ohai, Huerta, and Daly all playing attacking midfielder. The 4-2-3-1 is backed up by rookie Haley Hanson and Linda Motlhalo, both of whom have the ability to participate in the attack from their holding midfield roles. The weak spot for Houston, despite the upgrades they’ve made during the season, is still the defense. They are not the most athletically gifted back line, and they can be broken down with relative ease. Goalkeeper Jane Campbell is a fringe USWNT player who can be excellent or embarrassing on the back line, but I feel like her consistency has improved in this, her second year in the league. Polkinghorne (out) and Chapman (questionable) are both on the injury report this week, so that will further mire the Houston defense.
Houston will only be playing for pride, but I know that they team will be looking to flex their muscles against the best team in the league. Pauw is looking for a new contract with the team, Huerta and Ohai are trying to prove that they belong on the USWNT, and Daly is looking to cement her spot on England’s roster ahead of the 2019 Women’s World Cup. Add the fact that Houston has never beaten North Carolina and you have a recipe for a great final game of the season.
Learning to live without Zerboni
McCall Zerboni is going to miss the last game of the season and the playoffs, we can get that out of the way. The Courage have played three games without her this season and they were a 1-1 draw with Houston, 0-0 draw with Utah, and 1-1 draw with Chicago...not the best track record, but those results should be taken with a grain of salt. The first two matches were during FIFA breaks when Ellis took all of the USWNT players, so the Courage were also missing Crystal Dunn, Samantha Mewis, Merritt Mathias, etc. The final game against Chicago is more concerning because the whole team was there and Chicago is a little better than even odds to be playing against the Courage next Sunday in the semifinals for the second year in a row, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.
For now, we should look at the Houston game. In that match, the Courage narrowly avoided their first loss of the season thanks to a late goal by Frannie Crouse, who is no longer with the team. If the Courage had been able to field the full squad, minus Zerboni, plus Heather O’Reilly who was not with the team at that point, I think the Courage would have secured an easy victory. Houston is also a lot better at this point in the season, but they still don’t have the talent to match the Courage.
With Houston’s defensive weakness and that position being one of relative strength for the Courage, I think this should be a clear-cut victory for the Courage. It’s good that Zerboni got hurt in time for North Carolina to play at least one regular season match before they go into the playoffs next weekend, and I don’t think Paul Riley would be upset if the team struggled in this game. He was relieved when the team finally lost their first game against Utah, and I know that he builds strength in his team through the hardships that they face. With so much history on the line for North Carolina (look for an article about that tomorrow morning), this should be an excellent way to end an amazing regular season.