Last weekend, the North Carolina Courage beat Utah Royals FC for the first time in team history. This weekend the Courage will be on the other end of history when they host the Washington Spirit. The North Carolina Courage have never dropped a point to the Spirit. No losses. No draws. We’ve played the Spirit 7 times - 8 if you include the preseason game in 2018 - and the Courage have won each and every time.
Unfortunately, if you were getting used to seeing Abby Dahlkemper, Crystal Dunn, Sam Mewis, and Jess McDonald back with the team...well you’re out of luck. The United States women’s national team players are going to be away for this match because they will be participating in the World Cup victory tour against Ireland. The Courage do have one Irish international, Denise O’Sullivan, but her federation didn’t call her up because she had club obligations. That’s right, Ireland cares more about their players participating in the NWSL than US Soccer does. The Courage will be playing on Friday night at 7:00 p.m. without many of their star players, but the Spirit will be hurt, too. Washington will be without rising stars Rose Lavelle and Mallory Pugh.
The Spirit are having a surprisingly good year
If you’re new to the National Women’s Soccer League you might not know that the Washington Spirit were supposed to be bad this season. Really bad. After losing the 2016 Championship game to the Western New York Flash, which then became the Courage, the Washington Spirit completely collapsed. They finished in last place in 2017 and second-to-last in 2018. There was no reason to believe that they would be any better this season, but somehow they are currently sitting in fourth place with a game in hand over their nearest competitors.
The Spirit have a new head coach; the controversial Richie Burke. He has made the Spirit a team who values possession and ball control more than anything else, and that plan worked perfectly for the first nine games of the season. In both offensive and defensive efficiency statistics, the Washington Spirit were the best team in the league. They scored far more goals per shot than any other team in the league and they allowed far fewer goals per shot than they should have. The systematic progression of play from defense to midfield to forward was working exactly as planned, and the Spirit climbed all the way to first place in the league.
Things have taken a sharp turn for the worse lately. They aren’t scoring as many goals and they are being scored on far more often, but the Spirit still sit in fourth place and represent a serious challenge for the Courage. Midfielder Andi Sullivan has gone from a draft bust under former head coach Jim Gabarra to the linchpin of the current Spirit system. Burke decided early in his tenure with the team that she was the piece to build the team around, and he has done an excellent job of accentuating her strengths. She has great vision on the ball. She knows when to push forward and when to pass the ball. She is excellent at finding the outlet when under pressure. She’s exactly the kind of soccer point guard you want running a possession-oriented offense.
The rest of the team just isn’t quite there, and that’s how the Courage won their last meeting. North Carolina plays an extremely high press system that puts possession-oriented teams under pressure. Sullivan is a good enough player to consistently find the right outlet, but the rest of the team doesn’t have the necessary composure to consistently make the right play under pressure. This system does put our defenders at a disadvantage, but the Spirit aren’t designed to take advantage of sudden attacking opportunities. They don’t have anything close to a Sam Kerr to take over the game. Former Courage forward Ashley Hatch, who won Rookie of the Year honors when she scored 7 goals in North Carolina in 2017, is still working on polishing her game. She has been much better this season, but she can be absent for large chunks of the game.
How will the Courage line up
Clearly there will need to be some changes. Four of the players who started in Utah on Saturday are going to be gone, but the remaining players have had a lot of time to build chemistry during the World Cup. Oh, and we have the Player of the Week and Player of the Month in Kristen Hamilton leading the charge.
This lineup makes a few assumptions. First, Lynn Williams had to sit out the last game with a hamstring injury. It didn’t sound like the injury was serious, but if she can’t go then Leah Pruitt will probably start in her place. It also assumes that McCall Zerboni is going to continue playing in the 10. I don’t get this decision, but head coach Paul Riley has consistently played Zerboni at the top of the formation lately. Otherwise, this seems like a pretty safe guess, unless Riley decides to alter the formation.
No matter how the team comes out, this is an extremely important game for the Courage. A win would put them, however briefly, into first place in the league. It would also push a fellow playoff contender down the rankings. Washington isn’t the most worrisome team, but anything we can do to keep the rest of the league at arm’s length is important.
How to watch
The best way to watch is in person at Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, NC. If Cary, NC is a little bit out of the way for you on Friday night at 7:00 p.m. ET, you can always tune in on Yahoo! Sports on your phone, computer, or smart TV for fans in the United States. If you don’t live in the good ole US of A, you can watch the game on NWSLsoccer.com.
Let’s go, Courage!