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NC Courage trounces Orlando Pride for third win in five days

The Courage look great from top to bottom

Jess McDonald celebrates after scoring in 2018.

On Saturday afternoon the North Carolina Courage hosted the Orlando Pride for a friendly preseason match. It was the first preseason scrimmage for the Pride but the fourth for the Courage, and it was obvious which team was in better form. The Courage scored four goals without conceding despite the Pride finding a few good looks early in the match. The 4-0 victory on Saturday followed a 4-0 win at Wake Forest on Tuesday and a 2-0 win over UNC on Wednesday. The Courage will still have two more preseason matches before the start of the regular season on April 13th.

Stephanie Labbe started in goal for the first time at Sahlen’s Stadium, although she had been the starter in other preseason games. She looked in command throughout the match and seemed comfortable controlling the defenders in front of her. She’s definitely a great addition to the team, and when speaking with her on Sunday it sounded like she was champing at the bit to get to Courage training camp. We’re certainly happy to have her.

The defensive line was mostly normal. Jaelene Hinkle didn’t play in the match, but Merritt Mathias, Abby Dahlkemper, and Abby Erceg were joined by Meredith Speck. Pride forward Chioma Ubogagu caused big problems in the middle of the park for the first 30 minutes of the match, but she was never able to get a good shot off. The few times Orlando found some space it was closed down quickly by Dahlkemper who had a generally good day. A better pure shooter, like Lindsey Horan, might have been able to test Labbe from the top of the box, but Orlando was never able to. Speck opened the scoring for North Carolina in the 35th minute after the ball bounced around in the Orlando penalty area and she slotted it home.

The midfield lined up with Sam Mewis and Denise O’Sullivan paired at the 6 and Kristen Hamilton and Crystal Dunn up in the 10. Mewis and O’Sullivan were extremely disruptive and consistently attacked Orlando in the midfield. Hamilton and O’Sullivan project to start a lot of games in 2019 while Dunn and Mewis are off with the USWNT for the World Cup.

Lynn Williams and Jess McDonald were a commanding presence at the top of the formation for North Carolina. They consistently pressured Orlando while they tried - largely unsuccessfully - to build out of the back. A bit of atrocious goalkeeping and some good effort from Williams and McDonald produced the second NC goal.

The Courage made three substitutions at halftime. Hamilton was replaced by McCall Zerboni, Labbe was replaced by Katelyn Rowland, and Speck was replaced by Hailey Harbison. Rowland will start about half of the games in 2019 with Labbe expected to start for Canada at the World Cup, but I was most impressed by the play of Harbison. Drafted with the ninth pick in the 2019 NWSL College Draft, Harbison was extremely impressive and disciplined both defensively and offensively in the second half. Riley said that she reminded him of Hinkle from two years ago in Western New York when she was a young player. That’s obviously glowing praise when you’re being compared to one of the best outside backs in the NWSL.

Paul Riley made a few more substitutions after the second goal of the game. Cari Roccaro came in for Mewis, Leah Pruitt came in for McDonald, and Elizabeth Eddy came on for Dunn. Roccaro played well and Riley thinks she will be a good starter come World Cup time, but I was most impressed by Eddy and Pruitt. Eddy looked comfortable in the midfield. She was consistently in the right position and frequently found herself on the ball. Some of her plays forward missed the mark, but she was confident and powerful. Pruitt was absolute dynamite on the field. She was taking no prisoners and working hard to prove that she deserved to be on a professional pitch. At one point, Pride goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris was a little lazy playing the ball forward and Pruitt attacked her and nearly won the ball for an easy goal. Harris was visibly upset with the ref for not calling a foul, but Pruitt had every right to go after the ball when Harris was dribbling. Riley spoke extremely highly of Pruitt and said that he expected her to be on the USWNT in the near future.

By this point in the game the Pride were finished. They hardly attempted an attack outside of a few individual efforts running at the defense. Rowland made a great save late in the second half, but the second half was almost entirely played on the Orlando side of the field. Williams scored the third Courage goal in the 69th minute on a weak shot that Harris badly misplayed. The Courage put six new players onto the field in the 76th minute.

Swedish international Julia Spetsmark looked the best out of the late additions. She worked well as an attacking player, and she scored the fourth goal of the game in the 89th minute. When I spoke to her on Sunday, Spetsmark seemed very excited about the prospect of playing for the Courage. She will probably play a relieving role for most of the season, but if her fitness improves she could be a valuable starter. As a substitute, she should be a game-changing player.

The Courage still have two more preseason games. The first is on March 30th against South Carolina and the second is on April 6th against the University of Virginia.