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NC Courage vs Sky Blue FC: Match preview

Give’em hell, Zerboni!

Jess McDonald (far right) and Crystal Dunn (19) will be missing for the next few months.
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I’d like to start this article by saying that Jill Ellis sucks. Not calling in McCall Zerboni after she participated in all three USWNT camps in 2019 and worked hard to come back from a broken elbow is classless.

Now that that’s out of the way, the North Carolina Courage will be hosting Sky Blue FC this weekend in the first match without their USWNT World Cup players. The four players that are going to be missing for North Carolina are forward Jess McDonald, midfielders Sam Mewis and Crystal Dunn, and defender Abby Dahlkemper. All four are amazing players who absolutely deserve to be gone, and it’s going to give a bunch of new players a chance to prove that they have what it takes to be in the NWSL. Our opponents, Sky Blue FC, have just one players heading off to the World Cup; Carli Lloyd. Lloyd is the only player that has scored any goals for SBFC this season, and she was also the only player on Sky Blue to score against the Courage last season. It’s a big loss for them.

Over the first three games of the season, the Courage have proven that they are still the best team in the league. They are at the top of the table with 7 points and sport an impressive +8 goal differential. They are averaging over 3 goals per game while allowing less than 1. They did have an opening weekend draw against the Chicago Red Stars, but there’s no shame in tying with a top-level contender like Chicago. All in all, the Courage are picking up right where they left off in 2019.

...So is Sky Blue FC

Sky Blue FC set a lot of really negative records last season. They started the year with 17 losses and 6 draws before finally getting their lone win of the season on the final weekend against Orlando Pride. This year they started the season with two straight shutout losses against Washington and Houston. New Jersey did finally earn a draw last Sunday against Portland Thorns FC, but they went up 2-0 and let Portland come back quickly for the draw. Given that Lloyd is the only player who has scored for Sky Blue this season, it’s definitely going to be a tough game for the visitors on Saturday.

Despite their lack of results, SBFC has actually looked decent for big stretches of the last few games. They nearly gutted out a nil-nil draw against Houston, but the defense fell apart too many times at the end of the game. Even after giving up their two goal lead to Portland last weekend, the team never gave up and probably looked like the better side for the second half. Imani Dorsey has looked creative, but not particularly dangerous, on the ball for the last two games. Rookie Paige Monaghan have been exciting in the midfield, and goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan has been doing absolutely everything in her power to bail out the porous defense. I don’t want to give a false impression. This team is bad, but there are a few sparkles of life that seemed to be completely extinguished last year. I’m still not confident that head coach Denise Reddy can implement a professional game plan, but she’s up against the 8-ball with the roster she has. It’s a tough situation and you really have to feel for all of the players on that team.

How will the Courage cover their absences?

The next nine weeks are going to be supremely fun. We might not go into every game feeling great about the roster, but I personally love the opportunity to watch new players on the pitch. For this first week, things aren’t going to be too different.

Back in July of 2018, the Courage went off to play in the ICC Tournament in Miami against two of the best women’s club teams in the world. PSG and Lyon are right up there in the conversation, and Lyon is usually the end of the conversation; they’ve won the last three UEFA Women’s Champions League titles. Entering that tournament, the Courage were missing six starters due to international duty, but we still managed to beat the All-Star teams from France. Sky Blue FC isn’t Lyon and we’re only missing 4 players, so this shouldn’t be too bad.

On the back line, Kaleigh Kurtz is expected to step in flawlessly for Dahlkemper. Kurtz started 6 games for North Carolina in 2018 and it was easy to forget that Dahlkemper wasn’t on the field. There are certainly areas of weakness. Kurtz doesn’t have the same long pass accuracy or dead ball skills that Dahlkemper has, but there are other players who can pick up the slack there. Where it really counts, as a center back next to Abby Erceg, Kurtz is an excellent replacement player.

Then we come to the midfield. This is certainly a different story. Denise O’Sullivan should slot into the 6 in place of Mewis, but the two players have very different skill sets. Mewis is big, powerful, fast, and gifted at finding and exploiting space. O’Sullivan is more in the Zerboni mold. She’s going to annoy the other midfielders by stepping in front of them, disrupting passing lanes, attacking the ball with her feet instead of pushing people off the ball like Mewis would. O’Sullivan also gives up about 9 inches of height to Mewis, and that lack of size will definitely be a problem on both ends of the pitch. With O’Sullivan dropping back, I’d expect Kristen Hamilton to move into a starting role at the top of the midfield box unless she is needed as a forward.

Like Mewis, nobody on Earth can replace Crystal Dunn, but Debinha is going to try. Debinha lacks a lot of the skills that makes Dunn a truly transcendent player. She isn’t especially fast, nor can she exploit the wide areas of the field as well. She tends to stay more pinched in when compared to Dunn, and that can occasionally stymie an attack that would succeed better if the defense were forced to cover more width on the pitch. All of that said, the Brazilian has a number of qualities that Dunn doesn’t possess. She’s a much better distance shooter, and she’s a bit more selfish on the ball. She plays short, quick passes to break down defenses in tight areas. There are some questions about fitness, so it’s possible that she won’t even get the start. She will definitely end up being subbed off if she starts.

The replacement for McDonald at the front is truly up in the air. Rookie Leah Pruitt has subbed on for McDonald in all three games so far this season, so she is the obvious choice. It’s just hard to know whether the rookie has enough gas in the tank to play at a high level for 60-70 minutes. Pruitt probably has the most to offer the team as a starter, but the question is more about how long she can offer it. Fortunately, there are plenty of other players who can fill the role. Kristen Hamilton, who is used to playing full games from years past, is an option. She has been used as more of a 10 lately, but she can certainly play up top. She is an aggressive player who really embodies the Courage mentality. The dark horse candidate would be Julia Spetsmark. The Swedish international is an excellent offensive player, but she isn’t cut from the same cloth as the rest of the Courage forwards. There would be big questions about whether she could put in the defensive effort necessary to play like North Carolina wants to, and Paul Riley mentioned that she was deadly in front of goal, but the problem was getting her the ball there. I would rather see Pruitt start with 50-60 minutes before subbing Spetsmark into the game, but that could be reversed.

So here’s what that starting lineup would look like.

The game kicks off at 7:00 p.m. ET at Sahlen’s Stadium in WakeMed Soccer Park. You can catch the game on Yahoo! Sports or the NWSL website.