The North Carolina Courage are going to have their fitness tested early this season. On Wednesday night, the Courage will be hosting the Orlando Pride for their second match in four days. The Pride have a more difficult time than the Courage, though. They lost 0-2 in their home opener on Sunday against Portland Thorns FC and now have to travel to North Carolina to play a game on just two days of rest.
The shot selection and execution has to be better
The Chicago Red Stars, who played to a 1-1 draw against the Courage on Saturday, are a quality side. They’re probably one of the best three teams in the league, but that doesn’t mitigate the frustration we felt last match. The Courage absolutely should have won against Chicago, but on the other hand they were lucky to even get away with a point. Sam Kerr, the best striker in the league and possibly the world, beat her mark and had a shot bounce off the crossbar and down onto the touch line in stoppage time.
The Courage had 24 shots against Chicago, but they only put 6 shots on goal and 1 into the back of the net. That kind of effort is painfully familiar to Courage fans, but last season that didn’t matter much. They out-shot Chicago 24 to 6, had 13 corners to Chicago’s 1, held the Red Stars to 58% passing accuracy, and controlled 60% of the possession. Those kinds of numbers should not end with a draw, but that’s in the past.
Paul Riley had lots of good things to say about the team’s performance. For a first game of the season, he felt that things were more polished and put together than they had been over the last few seasons. That said, he acknowledged that there were areas, specifically in the attacking third, where the team could have been a little more crisp. The midfield, in particular, had a great opening match.
“I think in set pieces, teams are going to sit low on us this season. You saw it today. We talked about it a lot in preseason, how to break low blocks down. You know, working the wide areas and try to draw teams out and that’s something that I think we’re going to evolve as a team. Something we’ve not had to deal with really the last two or three years, but this year I have a feeling there’s going to be a lot of low blocks and a lot of numbers across the penalty box making it difficult for us. And again, it’s a great challenge for us. Teams, it’s a show of respect, I think, to the group and, I mean, the work ethic of both teams. Our fitness level was a little higher than theirs. I think we looked a little fitter.”
An opportunity to change the narrative against Orlando
While the Courage were solid and had a chance to win their opening match, Orlando struggled. The Pride, under new head coach Marc Skinner, are trying to find an identity and make due with a limited roster. They were rarely threatening against a strong Portland Thorns team, and the 2-0 loss doesn’t entirely represent how thoroughly outplayed they were.
The Pride have a wealth of attacking talent. Forward Alex Morgan is a class player who has been extremely effective for the USWNT over the last 12 months, but she hasn’t been able to put it together for her club. Similarly Marta, one of the greatest woman footballers ever, is struggling to find a way to insert herself into the game plan. Growing pains are always going to happen with a new head coach, but facing off against Portland and North Carolina in the first four days of your opening regular season is the ultimate trial by fire.
Realistically, anything less than a multi-goal win will be a disappointment for the Courage. The Pride midfield is decidedly lackluster, and the back line is only marginally better. For every bit of offensive prowess the team has, they just don’t seem to have the roster capable of utilizing those players.
The Pride might have an ace up their sleeve though, or at least a few face cards. On Sunday, Australian internationals Alanna Kennedy and Emily Van Egmond were both out due to illness, and they were replaced by Bridget Callahan and Joanna Boyles. Both of those players were making their professional debuts. The addition of international-quality players will definitely benefit Orlando, but it probably wouldn’t have prevented a loss on Sunday.
The Courage beat Orlando in all three of their matches last season, and they secured a 4-0 win over the Pride in the preseason.
Another look at the starting XI
As usual, it’s hard to know exactly what Riley will do. I tend to lean towards us seeing the same starting lineup at Saturday, but he did mention in the post-game that he wasn’t sure whether Zerboni was going to be ready to start last weekend. There will definitely be the potential for a surprise change. The NWSL doesn’t do a good job of putting out injury news early in the week, so if someone took a little knock they might be rested as a precaution. I’m sure that recovery will be of the utmost importance with two games in four days to start the season.
It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see Hamilton starting and O’Sullivan moving back to the 6 if either Zerboni or Mewis are managing minutes. In other seasons I would have expected McDonald to start on the bench as well, but she seemed like she was in perfect shape on Saturday.
Let’s hope we can earn three points and a spot at the top of the table with this mid-week game.