Happy Fourth of July fellow North Carolina Courage fans! For the third consecutive season, the Courage will be playing a game around the holiday, and I’m starting to like this as a league tradition. The Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions always host games on Thanksgiving, why can’t the Courage always host a game on 4th of July weekend/day? Let’s take a look back at those two past matches before we delve into tomorrow’s game.
In 2017, the first year of the team, the Courage hosted Sky Blue FC on July 1st. My family was in town, so we took them to the game...and it was terrible. Firstly, like most days in North Carolina in July, it was unbearably hot. Anyone who doesn’t live in the South doesn’t really understand 95 degrees with 95% humidity, but it was one of those days. To top it all off, Sam-freaking-Kerr scored a goal in the 84th minute to give SBFC a 1-0 win. Talk about a really great game to get people invested in the NWSL. Play a game midday in July in North Carolina, and leave it scoreless until the 84th minute when the away team scores the only goal of the match. 0/10
2018 was much better, though! The game was literally on Wednesday, July 4th. None of my family was in attendance, so naturally the Courage won 4-1 against the Chicago Red Stars. Four different Courage players scored before Chicago was awarded a weak penalty kick in, get this, the 93rd minute. That’s right. The ref, three minutes into stoppage time of a 4-0 game, awarded the away team a penalty kick to bring the game to a 4-1 final. Oh, and the game was at night, so that was also much better than the hottest part of the day.
On to 2019! The Courage will be hosting the Houston Dash this weekend, with kickoff scheduled for 7:30 p.m. ET. North Carolina is coming off of their strongest game since the United States women’s national team players left for the World Cup while Houston is backing their way into this match with three draws and two losses in their last five games. A win could push the Courage all the way into first place on the league table.
What is wrong with Houston?
Coming into the season, many ‘pundits’ (myself included) expected Houston to blow the league out of the water during the World Cup. The expectation was that Kealia Ohai and Sofia Huerta would go to work and get things done each weekend against depleted lineups, but that hasn’t come to pass.
Instead, the Dash have been one of the worst teams over the last five games, Without Rachel Daly (England - still technically in the World Cup kind of) and Nichelle Prince (Canada - World Cup then surgery), Houston has been completely devoid of attacking presence. Huerta and Ohai were even considered snubs when the roster dropped, but they just haven’t lived up to the hype.
Luckily for North Carolina, those two disappointing players are the most dangerous ones on the team. Houston is still missing a bunch of international players, and the last time these two teams met, when they were both at full strength back on April 28th, it ended in a 4-1 Courage win.
Houston can still be dangerous on the counter, but they aren’t well endowed with playmaking ability in their current form. Jane Campbell is an admirable goalkeeper, so that could cause problems for North Carolina. That’s really the strongest point of this team. Once Canada releases their World Cup players back into the league things will be much better for Houston, but they’re in rough shape right now.
Houston has been trying to play more possession-oriented soccer, and I think they can probably control about half of the game against the Courage. The problem for them is that they aren’t doing much with the possession when they have it, and sometimes they come out flat and completely miss the mark. Things started differently early in the season, but they just can’t get anything done without their internationals.
Projecting the Courage lineup
The Courage looked so much better last weekend against the Washington Spirit with Debinha back and Katelyn Rowland playing like a professional goalkeeper. The team was able to hold their high press for the full game and the outcome was commiserate to the effort. Erceg has been listed as questionable after picking up a knock before the last game. Kristen Hamilton was out with an eye injury last week but is not on the report going into the match.** Debinha was an offensive powerhouse last match, and she was probably the difference in the game against Washington.
[Starting XI] Erceg and Debinha return fresh off the World Cup.#NoFinishLine pic.twitter.com/KJnrf4KIax— NC Courage (@TheNCCourage) June 29, 2019
I don’t see any reason to believe that Paul Riley will put out a different lineup against Houston, but I’d rather have Ryan Williams starting at right back with Merritt Mathias at defensive midfield. Cari Roccaro just hasn’t been good enough in the midfield. Williams is definitely not to the same talent at Mathias, but she was able to make an impact up and down the pitch last weekend. It’s just so important for North Carolina to come away with three points this weekend. Every game is important right now.
The same gameplan, with a high press and constant pressure, should work well against the struggling Dash, and, for the first time since the USWNT players left in April, I feel good going into this game. Let’s go, Courage!
**Editor’s note, this section has been updated as the injury report was released prior to the match.