The North Carolina Courage are on the verge of doing something historic. With five games left in the 2019 National Women’s Soccer League regular season, the Courage are getting extremely close to clinging the NWSL Shield for the third season in a row. The Courage have already captured the award, given to the team with the most points earned during the regular season, in their first two years in the league after the team moved from Rochester. Winning it for the third time in a row would eclipse the back-to-back Shield wins that Seattle Reign FC accomplished in 2014 and 2015, but those teams both lost to the now-defunct FC Kansas City in the Championship game.
For those who missed last night's match and are just now waking up...— NC Courage (@TheNCCourage) September 12, 2019
We won 6-0
@lynnraenie had a hat trick
@Debinha7, @crysdunn_19, and @khamilton17 each had one goal
@Debinha7 had three assists
@merrbear11 and @JaeHinkle_15 each had an assist#NoFinishLine pic.twitter.com/zN95sLJ2vt
North Carolina needs to win just three of their last five games to clinch the Shield and home field advantage throughout the playoffs. After a monstrous 6-0 win over Portland Thorns FC on the road on Wednesday night, the Courage will now host the Orlando Pride who also played midweek and somehow managed to lose to the Chicago Red Stars despite playing with 10 women for 25 minutes in a scoreless game. The Pride, who are having a terrible season under new head coach Marc Skinner, allowed a stoppage time game-winning goal to the undermanned Red Stars for their 14th loss of the season. The Pride have played the Courage twice during league play, and the Courage have won 5-0 and 3-0 after beating the Pride 4-0 in the preseason. It certainly seems like North Carolina’s game to take.
Orlando muddles through without their stars
For Orlando, that midweek meltdown came at a particularly vulnerable time for them. Their roster is top-heavy with regards to talent. Marta, one of the best players in the world, and Alex Morgan, the USWNT striker, headline the playbill for this team when they are on the pitch. Unfortunately for Orlando (and fortunately for the Courage), both Morgan and Marta have already been declared out for the match against North Carolina this weekend. That leaves pretty much nobody left to challenge the Courage, especially with Chioma Ubogagu off in Spain playing for CD Tacón.
Orlando will try to push what little offense they can muster through forward Rachel Hill. The third-year player looked like she was on the verge of an amazing career during her rookie season, but a combination of bad coaching and poor supporting cast has stifled her development. Hill has scored two goals this season, which is third-best on the Pride, and leads the team when only considering players who are available for the match. Marta (5) and Ubogagu (4) are the only players ahead of her in goals scored. All combined, the Orlando Pride will have a roster with just 8 total goals scored, coming from 7 different goal scorers in 2019. The Courage have two players, Lynn Williams (10) and Kristen Hamilton (9) who have scored more goals this season than the entire available Orlando roster combined. If Skinner weren’t such a prick, I’d actually feel bad for the English manager who wanted to get into NWSL coaching, because this roster is bad with Marta and Morgan. Without them it’s just nothing.
How will the Courage manage minutes?
The Courage are smack-dab in the middle of their five games in two weeks stretch. After today, we host the Houston Dash on Tuesday night and then travel to Utah for a game on Saturday. Paul Riley proved that he was willing to play down to the level of his opponent last Saturday when the starting lineup excluded Denise O’Sullivan, Debinha, and Jessica McDonald against Sky Blue FC. The team was resting for their midweek game against Portland, and it clearly paid off. The win against Sky Blue was tougher than it should have been, but they’re a team on the rise and a win is a win. It seems like we will go back to a less intimidating lineup for the games against Orlando and Houston before putting the screws to Utah Royals FC next weekend.
Hard to imagine a player more worthy of her own night than @HeatherOReilly.— UNC Women's Soccer (@uncwomenssoccer) September 11, 2019
Check out the details on @TheNCCourage’s celebration of our very own HAO on Saturday: https://t.co/OIMbWXxJTG pic.twitter.com/JXLtVS25xV
This weekend is officially Heather O’Reilly appreciation night, so we should expect her to start somewhere on the pitch. She’s more than capable of playing any position, but she has been slotting in as an outside back for the Courage lately.
There isn’t any reason to take Stephanie Labbe out of goal, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Riley gave Katelyn Rowland a token start in this one. Riley is still trying to build her confidence back, and she was even given a spot start against Manchester City at the ICC Women’s Tournament. Depending on Abby Dahlkemper’s fitness, we might see her replaced by Kaleigh Kurtz or Cari Roccaro, and Merritt Mathias could theoretically be replaced by Ryan Williams if needed. I still think the lineup on the back line will remain normal for this match before bigger changes come against Houston.
The midfield is anybody’s guess. Denise O’Sullivan was rested the whole game against Sky Blue, so she will probably start. Samantha Mewis and Crystal Dunn have definitely earned a breather if Riley can convince them to take one. If they sit, we would probably see Roccaro and McCall Zerboni step into the starting lineup. At the top of the formation, it would be surprising if we didn’t see Kristen Hamilton starting instead of McDonald. Hammy scored a hat trick against Orlando last time these two teams met. The bigger question is Lynn Williams. She has been in excellent form lately, and the Courage don’t have another truly match-fit replacement forward. McKenzie Meehan seems to have stepped up as the preferred replacement forward, but Julia Spetsmark is probably the more fit player of the two. There are probably even odds of Williams, Meehan, or Spetsmark getting the start against Orlando.
How to watch
This game is set to kick off at 7:00 p.m. ET at Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, NC. The game will be broadcast in the United States on Yahoo! Sports either using a computer or app on a phone or TV. Internationally, the game will be broadcast on ESPN. It will be broadcast on WRAL-2 in the greater Raleigh-Durham area as well.