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North Carolina Courage 2019 NWSL preview

Everything you need to know about the NC Courage as you get ready for the 2019 NWSL season

The wait is almost over!

Maybe you’re already a soccer fan but you haven’t experienced much women’s club soccer; that’s great, here’s an introduction to the best team in the world. Already a diehard Courage fan? Pass this along to someone else who enjoy watching exciting soccer, because there’s no team more exciting to watch than the North Carolina Courage.

How did the North Carolina Courage finish last season?

We won everything and rewrote the NWSL record book. NBD.

After suffering a disappointing 1-0 defeat to Portland Thorns FC in the 2017 NWSL Championship, the Courage came back in 2018 and crushed the Thorns 3-0 in Portland to finish off a record-setting season. The Courage won the NWSL Shield - the award for the team that has the best regular season performance - for the second consecutive season, but they did it in uncommonly dominant fashion. The Courage won more games (17), lost fewer games (1), scored more goals (54), conceded fewer goals (17), and racked up a bigger goal differential (+36) than any team in NWSL history. Along with all of those in-house records, the Courage also won the inaugural International Champion’s Cup Women’s Tournament where they beat Lyon - the best women’s soccer club in Europe - in the final match. That pretty much means that North Carolina was the best women’s club team in the world in 2018. Not too shabby.

Biggest change from last year?

The biggest change is the addition of Canadian women’s national team starting goalkeeper Stephanie Labbé. In the last two seasons goalkeeping was neither a strength nor weakness for the Courage, but now we have a world-class keeper between the pipes. It was hard to imagine North Carolina getting significantly better in 2019, but this might be just the kind of change that could improve the best team in the league. Otherwise everything seems to be the same from top to bottom in the organization.

Who’s out?

GK - Sabrina D’Angelo (transfer to Vittsjö GIK in Sweden)

DF - Yuri Kawamura (waived after tearing her ACL during the 2018 season)

DF - Morgan Reid (traded to Orlando Pride)

FW - Darian Jenkins (traded to Reign FC)

Who’s in?

GK - Stephanie Labbé (transfer from Linköpings FC in Sweden)

DF - Ally Haran (transfer from Selfoss FC in Iceland)

DF - Hailey Harbison (2019 NWSL College Draft)

MF - Julia Spetsmark (transfer from Djurgården in Sweden)

MF - Lauren Milliet (2019 NWSL College Draft)

FW - Leah Pruitt (2019 NWSL College Draft)

What’s the new jersey?

The new jersey takes the gold from the shoulders and scatters it in a zig-zag pattern through the middle of the jersey. Same sponsors. Oh, and see that star above the team crest? You get one of those each time you win a championship.

How will the World Cup impact the squad?

Does your soccer team have, like, a first starting lineup and then another 11 players who are also on the starting lineup? Ours does!

The 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup is going to strip the Courage roster from top to bottom. There are seven players who are effectively guaranteed to miss time for the tournament. Defender Abby Dahlkemper, midfielder Sam Mewis, and midfielder Crystal Dunn are almost guaranteed to be called up for the United States women’s national team, and Jess McDonald and McCall Zerboni are both on the bubble. They are more likely than not to be taken along to France. Labbé is the starting goalkeeper for Canada, Debinha plays midfield for Brazil, Abby Erceg plays center back for New Zealand, and there’s a very small chance that Spetsmark will be called up for Sweden, but she seemed to think that was unlikely when we talked at the end of March. Midfielder Heather O’Reilly won’t be playing in the World Cup, but she took a job as a commentator for FOX and will be away during that time.

All added up, that’s at least seven and up to ten players that will be missing for the World Cup.

Projected starting XI

Head coach Paul Riley stuck with a 4-4-2 box - that means two attacking and two defensive midfielders - for pretty much the whole 2018 season. We won everything, so there’s no reason to expect any changes this year.

Expectations for 2019?

Lynn Williams wins the Golden Boot, and the team wins the Championship and Shield again. Anything less would be setting the bar too low. Sure, it’ll be harder with so many integral parts of the team missing, but we shouldn't be expecting anything less. The 2019 season will be an excellent opportunity to build talent and depth. The league will probably - it better! - expand in 2020, so the Courage are going to lose one or two starting players in expansion drafts. Let’s win another championship with this squad and then make a team that can continue to kick butt for years to come.

Oh, and win the ICC Tournament again. We’re hosting that in August.

What did we learn last season about this team?

We, and the rest of the league, learned that this is the team to beat in 2019. Even after they won the Shield and made the Championship in 2017, the rest of the league didn't give North Carolina the respect they deserved. It wasn't until the Courage went undefeated through their first 12 games that teams and media members really started treating them like the best team in the league. Then they won the ICC Women’s Tournament, the Shield, and the Championship. We learned that, even lacking international star power, the Courage are starting the 2019 season an arm and leg ahead of the competition.

We also learned that they have a “next women up” mentality that allowed them to beat the best women’s team in the world while missing half of their starting squad. Few teams have had a chance to test their backup players against international superstars. The Courage not only had that opportunity, but they were also up to the task and shocked the world. Then they dismantled the Chicago Red Stars 2-0 and Portland Thorns 3-0 in their two playoff matches after midfielder McCall Zerboni broke her elbow and had to miss those two important games.

The Courage are always going to be a fun team to watch. They never give up. They play fast-paced, physical soccer. They’re the best women’s club team in the world.

Who is THE player to watch on your team, and why?

Forward Lynn Williams. No other player is going to have a greater impact on North Carolina than she will. She is probably the fastest straight-line runner in the league, she led the team in goals each of the last two years, and she’s going to be one of the most talented players not going to France to play in the World Cup this summer.

Four years ago, fellow Courage player Crystal Dunn just barely missed out on making the USWNT squad. She went on to control the 2015 NWSL season by scoring 15 goals and helping the Washington Spirit, her former team, earn a playoff berth. The performance also helped buoy her national team career. Williams is perfectly poised to have a similar performance in 2019. If she can clean up her finishing just a little she could hit 20 goals this season against the depleted defenses of the league. Even if she doesn't hit that lofty mark, she’s going to be the main driver of North Carolina’s offense for much of the season.

Who’s the player fans will learn to love?

Are you someone who already loves McCall Zerboni? Then you’re going to love Denise O’Sullivan this year. Courage fans might already have some level of appreciation for Sully - that’s how Paul Riley always refers to her - because she scored the game-winning goal over the Chicago Red Stars back in the 2017 semifinal match. She joined the team halfway through that 2017 season after being waived by the Houston Dash, and she played a big part in the midfield in 2018, but this season she’s going to play a whole new role.

All last season, North Carolina played a 4-4-2 system with two attacking midfielders (AKA 10’s) and two defensive midfielders (AKA 6’s). O’Sullivan played a mixture of 6 and 10 last year, but this year she is going to be the enforcer in the midfield while Zerboni spends much of the season away from the team. Sully, who plays for Ireland internationally, has grown into the Courage system. She is tough, scrappy, and plays with unbridled intensity. She might not be the most polished player on the pitch, but it’s impossible to not love players who play with the kind of passion that O’Sullivan does.

How much will this roster change after the season starts?

The thing that makes Paul Riley such an amazing manager is that he never lets his players get too comfortable. He is always going to play the best person for the team, and he doesn't shy away from making moves mid-season.

In 2017, Riley added Stephanie Ochs, Nora Holstad Berge, and Denise O’Sullivan during the season, and O’Sullivan went on to score that game-winning goal in the playoffs. In 2018, O’Reilly and Cari Roccaro were added in the middle of the season while Allysha Chapman was traded to the Dash for a first-round pick in the 2019 draft. This season we should expect a few players to be added and dropped, but the biggest changes will be when the USWNT players are away and the starting lineup has to be reconfigured. It’s going to be really exciting to see which of the reserve players that are currently working with the team will be added back as replacement players.

The new supplemental player system will allow for a bit more continuity as players transition into and out of the team, which means that the Courage will have an even bigger leg up with their extremely deep roster.