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NC Courage 2019 preview: the NWSL Champs take the field next week

The double, or treble?, defense gets underway

The last that we saw of the NC Courage they were beating the Portland Thorns and capping off a historic NWSL season in which they won a double - technically a treble depending on how you feel about the ICC. In 24 games in the regular season, the Courage lost just once, with six draws. They only allowed 17 goals all year while scoring a torrid 53 of their own. On the way to winning the NWSL Championship, the team also won the first ever Women’s International Champions Cup - beating UEFA Champions League winners Lyon in the final. In short, it was an epic season, one that would be difficult to surpass in a normal year, much less one with the World Cup looming.

France looms

When it comes to the US Soccer/NWSL relationship, the USWNT clearly gets priority. There are Reasons for this, but what it means for the Courage is that the players headed to the World Cup for the Stars and Stripes will miss a lot of time with their club. Add to it the international players, like Abby Erceg and Debinha, and the team will be reliant on depth for 2019. For the USWNT players, it’s entirely possible that they will miss half of the regular season if not more.

Currently Abby Dahlkemper, Crystal Dunn, Sam Mewis, McCall Zerboni, and Jess McDonald are in camp with the Stars and Stripes ahead of friendlies against Australia and Belgium in France. The WNT will have its send off friendlies beginning in mid-May. To its credit, the NWSL will take a break for 12 days in early June, but that won’t cover the month long tournament in its entirety.

With that in mind, the league expanded its rosters with teams able to have between 20-22 players on the senior roster with four additional players able to be added that don’t count against the salary cap but must be paid the league minimum.

What’s new

The team was fairly inactive in the offseason. Aside from drafting Leah Pruitt, Hailey Harbison, Lauren Milliet and Kaycie Tillman, North Carolina brought in Swedish national team attacker Julia Spetsmark and Canadian keeper Stephanie Labbe. Those last two will probably be away during the World Cup, but should be in the picture as starters when available. A handful of non-roster invitees joined the team in camp this spring and the final roster will be set on Monday.

As far as players who have moved on, Darian Jenkins was traded to the Seattle Reign for the 9th pick in the NWSL Draft. Additionally, the team traded the rights to Morgan Reid to the Orlando Pride for a draft pick next year.

What to watch for

Really it’s difficult to write one what to watch for section. The main thing will be how the team handles the roster upheaval it will face all season, how Paul Riley gets the team to play with so many changes throughout the year, and how the players on international duty are able to stay fit with such a packed schedule and so much long distance travel all year.

Last season, the Courage had a stifling press and were absolutely lethal in front of goal. The team started perhaps a bit slowly perhaps, but after the Orlando Pride scored three goals on them in late May, no team would score on the Courage more than once in a game for the rest of the year. In attack, Jess McDonald finished the year with 10 goals and eight assists while Lynn Williams had 14 goals.

It’s hard to imagine that Paul Riley will change things up tactically too much this year. While some of his best players will be absent, he seems to have found a tactical philosophy. Whether the players can implement it as he needs to change the roster during the year will be what to watch. Keep in mind that every team in the league will be missing its stars for a portion of the year and the Courage are going to be able to hold on to the second highest goal scorer from 2018 all season.

A key player will be Heather O’Reilly playing on the right wing, she’s a proven player and still has a lot to offer in both the attack and while trying to win back possession. In addition, Kristen Hamilton will have a chance to step up for the Courage in 2019. She had eight starts last year but should get plenty of opportunities to start in some attacking role for the team. A bigger question mark for the team looms in central defense. With Dahlkemper and Erceg probably set to depart for a good chunk of the season, Kaleigh Kurtz seems like she will get more time at center back. Joining her could be Ally Haran who has seen some time in central defense in preseason.

Perhaps the biggest question will be who lines up next to Denise O’Sullivan in central midfield. With Sam Mewis a national team fixture, Cari Roccaro could see time when she’s on international duty. The box midfield really relied on the partnership between the two defensive mids and with one of the best in the league missing, it could be an issue for making the tactics work effectively.

Key matches

April 17 vs Orlando Pride: In the south, we don’t like Orlando much and the Courage have been most unkind to the central-Florida team in the past. As the season gets under way, the Courage will need to make the most of the chances it has with a full compliment of players and an early season win against the Pride would making the most out of a big one.

May 19 vs Utah Royals: Utah had Carolina’s number last year and have never lost to the team since relocating from Kansas City. This will also be a game taking place during the USWNT pre-World Cup friendlies and should tell how the team will handle the roster flux.

August 11 at Portland Thorns: This will be a late season showdown against two teams that don’t seem to like each other much. It will also be about a month after the World Cup final, should the US make it that far, and should be enough time for the players to have recovered and joined their teams fully for the rest of the 2019 season.