When the North Carolina Courage take the pitch on Sunday afternoon they will be in search of history. No team in the history of the National Women’s Soccer League has made the Championship game three years in a row, but the Courage are in great position to do just that. Unlike 2018, where the Courage took 1st place in week 2 and won the title eight months later, this team has faced adversity. There was a time, just as the group stage of the World Cup was ending, that the Courage sat in 7th place out of 9 teams on the league table. Those days are well behind us, but there are still some lingering concerns.
Just three weeks ago, the Courage gave up two late goals to the Washington Spirit. They had already clinched the NWSL Shield at that point, but it locked them out of an opportunity to break a few of their own records in the final match of the season. They did eventually break one record as they edged out Sky Blue FC in a 3-2 victory with their 54th goal - most in league history - but things still feel a bit off. The Courage are definitely the best team in the league, but there isn’t much daylight between them and the Reign.
Reign FC have overcome endless struggles
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Reign FC making it to the playoffs this year is a miracle. That miracle can almost completely be contributed to the amazing strategic fortitude of head coach Vlatko Andonovski. Despite double-digit injuries and absent players for the World Cup, Andonovski has ensured that a quality product has taken the field for each and every game this season. Based on how every other team has played in 2019, there is no doubt in my mind that Vlatko is the greatest coach in the league.
This is the playoffs, though, and great coaching can only get you so far. Reign FC are going to face their toughest test of the season when they kick off against the North Carolina Courage on Sunday. In goal, Casey Murphy returned from France to join the Reign at Andonovski’s behest. She went to Europe to avoid playing for Sky Blue FC, but her presence has covered up season ending injuries to Michele Betos and Australian Lydia Williams. Murphy is young and she isn’t the best shot-blocker in the league, but she is solid and consistent, which matches up well against the Courage. The RFC defense is also solid, but they might be missing defender Megan Oyster, who has played a major role for the team this season. After months of consistent defensive lineups and variable offensive lineups, this is a new wrinkle for the Reign.
USWNT midfielder Allie Long anchors her unit, but she will be without Rumi Utsugi on her left for this match. Celia Delgado will probably start in Utsugi’s place, and it is a moderate downgrade for the Reign. On the right, Bethany Balcer is making a major play for Rookie of the Year with her scoring accolades, but she is also capable of putting pressure on the ball. Her biggest defensive deficiency is that she struggled to mark player off the ball or push players into preferred positions.
The Reign front line is a dangerous bunch. Led by FIFA Women’s Footballer of the Year, Megan Rapinoe, the forwards are a force to be reckoned with. Rapinoe is one of the best playmakers in the world, even if her age is starting to sap some of her athletic talents. Jodie Taylor, apart from being constantly offside, can be one of the best post-up attackers in the league. The Englishwoman is deadly when she is on, but she has major Lynn-Williams syndrome where she occasionally misses the goal from 2 feet away. Former NC Courage forward Darian Jenkins is also expected to suit up for the Reign on Sunday. She is still developing as a player and injuries have hindered her career, but there is so much raw talent. She shouldn’t be considered a weak link in a forward group that includes two international stars.
Other writers might downplay the Reign offense because they have scored relatively few goals this season, but Rapinoe, Taylor, and Jenkins have all missed major time this season. The defense will need to be on its A-game for this match. The best matchup for the Courage will be in the midfield, where superior numbers and talent should shift the tide of the game.
Can the Courage put their best team on the field?
Head coach Paul Riley has done an amazing job building this team. From top to bottom, no roster is more complete than the Courage. That said, there is still a big difference between the best lineup for North Carolina and a random group of players.
Our best forward pairing would be Lynn Williams and Jess McDonald. They match up favorably against a somewhat-weakened Reign back line, and as much as I absolutely loe Kristen Hamilton, she just hasn’t been the best player on the pitch lately. She can make an impact as a substitute, but Jess has come back from the World Cup with a fire in her soul.
The midfield would definitely be the biggest difference between the Courage and the Reign. Crystal Dunn and Sam Mewis alone would outplay the entire three-person group from Washington State, but when you add in Debinha and Denise O’Sullivan is becomes unfair. Pretty much every player in the Courage midfield can outplay any player in the Reign midfield - yes, even Alex Morgan’s watergirl - and that’s where the game will be won for North Carolina. There is definitely some concern that Mewis won’t be fully healthy for this match, but I’m of the opinion that you play your hardest in the semifinals and then let the chips fall where they land in the final.
The defense is going to be stressed by this Reign front-three. Megan Rapinoe won multiple games for the USWNT against top competition at the World Cup, and she can do the same thing against our team. Luckily, her supporting cast isn’t quite as strong for these matches. It’s going to be really important for Abby Erceg and Abby Dahlkemper to contain Taylor while the outside backs do their best to hold down Rapinoe and Jenkins. This will be the toughest test of the season for Heather O’Reilly.
In all, the Courage are the better team and they should win this match. My prediction would be a 3-1 Courage win, but nothing is guaranteed this season in the NWSL. We’re just going to have to see how the game plays out on Sunday.