On Sunday evening at Sahlen’s Stadium, the North Carolina Courage will face off against Utah Royals FC with both teams coming off of their first losses of the season. North Carolina is recovering from a difficult 3-1 loss to the Chicago Red Stars while Utah suffered a 2-1 home loss to the Houston Dash. Both teams have a chance to take the top spot on the league table with a win if things break right. If the Courage want to win they are going to need to improve in all phases of their game after a very flat performance against Chicago.
Utah is the white whale
Utah Royals FC is the only team in the league that has never lost to the Courage. The two teams drew twice in 2018, and URFC was the only team to beat North Carolina in all of 2018 thanks to a stoppage time strike from Brittany Ratcliffe. Now, without the services of Abby Dahlkemper, Crystal Dunn, Sam Mewis, and Jess McDonald, the Courage are going to have their fourth opportunity to take down the Royals.
There were really no positive takeaways from last weekend’s game against Chicago, and I’d be surprised if Paul Riley didn’t take the opportunity to shake things up this weekend. In both matches since the United States women’s national team players left for World Cup camp, the Courage defense has struggled. Whether it’s the loss of Dahlkemper, the loss of Mewis, or the loss of Dunn; something is going wrong. In the first match against Sky Blue FC, Kaleigh Kurtz froze every time she touched the ball and it allowed the defense to put her and the outside backs under pressure. In the game against Chicago, Cari Roccaro played better next to Erceg, but there were still too many times when a bad pass led to a counter that led to a dangerous opportunity for the Red Stars. Erceg just played a game against the USWNT on Thursday, so she will be playing on short rest and might not be at 100%.
The midfield has been frustratingly bad. Every one of the four midfielders is comfortable starting for the Courage, but they just haven’t been on the same page in these two games. McCall Zerboni and Denise O’Sullivan haven’t been able to maintain the high level of performance that the Courage have been used to. Debinha and Kristen Hamilton have been good on offense, but it hasn’t translated into goals, and the forwards haven’t been very influential.
In the game against Utah on Sunday, the biggest challenge will be maintaining Royals midfielder Vero Boquete. She has the ability to draw players towards her, and with an inexperienced group of players that talent is very dangerous. It will provide extra space for forwards Amy Rodriguez and Katie Stengel. The Courage should be able to exploit the defensive weakness of the Royals now that defensive midfielder Desiree Scott is away with Canada and Becky Sauerbrunn and Kelley O’Hara away with the United States. The big question is how dangerous the Courage can be right now. After scoring 10 goals in the first three games, North Carolina has scored just once in the last two.
The Royals slipped out of first place
As good as the Courage were in their first three games, Utah was technically better. They won the first three matches of the season with 1-0 scorelines, and it looked like they were headed to another close win until Houston scored twice and stole away the game. There are positives and negatives to be taken from those results.
Utah was the only team in the league that won all three games to start the season. Those 9 points put Utah in first place in the National Women’s Soccer League, and they did so without conceding a single goal. The defense was occasionally frazzled, but they were always able to pull things together thanks to the great goalkeeping performance of Nicole Barnhart. In the fourth game, with many players absent, Rachel Daly and the Houston Dash were able to score two goals to finally beat Utah. It exposed some weaknesses against quick forwards, which should bode well for Lynn Williams at the front of the Courage offensive line.
On the other end, Utah has been mediocre on offense. They’ve been very consistent with one goal per match, but that isn’t quite enough to win in this league. North Carolina should be able to score at least once, but it will come down to how well the defense is able to maintain Rodriguez and Stengel on the front line. I’d be impressed if the Courage were able to secure a clean sheet on Sunday, but anything less than or equal to one goal against would be sufficient.
Projected (desired) lineup
I’m going to take this a slightly different direction. Instead of trying to predict what Paul Riley will do with the starting lineup, I’m going to lay out the lineup I’d most like to see when I’m sitting in the stands on Sunday.
It’s a little different, with a 4-1-3-2 organization.
It’s risky playing just one defensive midfielder, but having more clearly defined roles should help. Mewis and Zerboni were able to switch seamlessly, but it might be more beneficial for players to have a little less freedom until they become better acclimated with this lineup.
It should be an exciting game no matter what, and it’s going to be one with a ton of implications for the rest of the season. It’s time for this team to have a good game.