Let’s think back. The last time the North Carolina Courage hit the pitch in National Women’s Soccer League play they needlessly dropped three points on the road against Portland Thorns FC. After going up a goal, the Courage scored two own goals to give Portland the win. That was a tough game to watch, but at least it was on TV and not in person.
Then the Courage went on hiatus. They hosted a tournament with Manchester City, Atletico Madrid, and Olympique Lyonnais and came away second after an extremely hard-fought match against Lyon in the final. It took a perfect strike by German superstar Dzsenifer Marozsan to topple the Courage, and the team should be endlessly proud of their performance in that game. Now it’s back to league play with a whole new outlook on the season.
Reign FC got the Courage at their worst
Reign FC have had a tough go in their first season playing at Cheney Stadium in Tacoma, WA. They’ve been absolutely decimated by injuries, but head coach Vlatko Andonovski has been masterful in finding players to fill space and keep the team competitive. The Reign have struggled lately, with a 3-1 loss against Utah Royals FC and a draw against Sky Blue FC in their last two games.
The magic of replacement goalkeeper Casey Murphy has worn off, and the defense has been much less impressive than they were earlier in the season. The centerback pairing of Lauren Barnes and Megan Oyster is solid, but they are looking more vulnerable than they did previously. The midfield boasts USWNT player Allie Long and Canadian Rebecca Quinn, but neither of those players are set to take over a game and dominate.
The forwards have been especially hit with injuries. Former Courage forward Darian Jenkins is working her way after a bout of injuries earlier in the season, and American star Megan Rapinoe has not yet played a minute since returning from her World Cup Golden Ball performance. English forward Jodie Taylor has returned and is consistently in the position to score, but she rivals Lynn Williams for the player with the best ability to miss the frame of goal from 5 feet away. Rookie Bethany Balcer is a fantastic player. Both physically imposing and excellent at striking from distance, she still lacks consistency like most rookies who come into the league.
All of this has combined to leave the Reign just outside of the playoff picture with a chance to pop into 3rd or 4th with a good end of the season. They will definitely be invested in winning this game, but they aren’t as imposing as they would be with a more fit roster.
RFC has notched a win and a loss against the Courage this season, so the game on Saturday is no sure thing. The first match came right before the World Cup when the Courage were at the depths of their “finding themselves” stage. That was before Kristen Hamilton switched to forward and after McCall Zerboni slumped when she wasn’t called up for the World Cup. The second match was a completely different story, with North Carolina finding an easy two-goal win at home. Williams and Debinha both scored in a game that the Courage thoroughly dominated.
Projecting the North Carolina lineup
With all of the World Cup players back, head coach Paul Riley has been switching and swapping players in an effort to find the perfect starting lineup. Williams, Hamilton and Jess McDonald have been rotating pretty regularly, and it’s hard to know which of the two will get the starting nod. It feels like Lynn has retaken her guaranteed starting spot, and McDonald is probably still a step above Hamilton in the pecking order.
In the midfield, Samantha Mewis and Crystal Dunn are locked in as starters, even if Mewis isn’t quite back to match fitness. Debinha looked better in the game against Lyon than I’ve ever seen, and Denise O’Sullivan played out of her mind against the best players in the world. That leaves Zerboni, a consistent fan favorite, on the outside of the starting lineup looking in. I genuinely believes that Riley wants to win the starting job, but Sully has just been too good. Given the minutes she has played this season and the upcoming UEFA qualifying games for Ireland, I could see Zerboni getting the start, but she isn’t the best midfielder right now.
Riley made an explosive statement in the ICC game against Manchester City when he benched Abby Dahlkemper in favor of Cari Roccaro. It was clear from the post-game presser that he was frustrated with her lack of fitness and drive coming back from the World Cup, but that didn’t stop him from putting her back into the starting lineup for the game against Lyon; a game in which she played quite well.
This is probably the most likely lineup, but the league doesn’t drop its injury report early enough to take that into account.
How to watch
The North Carolina Courage will be hosting Reign FC on Saturday night at Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, NC. There is a special broadcast of this game on Fox 50 in the Raleigh media market. The game will also be broadcast on Yahoo! Sports in the United States and on ESPN and affiliate outlets for international fans. This is a change after the games had been traditionally streamed on the NWSL website.