When the North Carolina Courage kick off against the Washington Spirit tonight at Maureen Hicks Field in Boyds, Maryland they won’t have a whole lot to play for. North Carolina has already clinched the NWSL regular season title and the #1 seed for the playoffs. If the team needed to rest players there would be no risk in doing so, but I doubt they will be looking for much rest with just two league games between now and the first playoff match on October 20th. Instead, the Courage will look to put a few more pages in the history books.
After an unbelievably dominant 2018 season, where North Carolina scored the most goals, suffered the fewest losses, won the most games, gathered the most points, and allowed the fewest goals in league history all at once, this season has a bit more pedestrian. What is being completely overlooked right now is that if it weren’t for the 2018 Courage, the 2019 Courage would have a chance at most of those records for themselves. If they won the next two games they would fall just 2 points shy of the 54 earned by the 2014 Seattle Reign FC, but instead they can only finish 5 behind the 2018 Courage. They have already scored as many goals (50) as the 2014 Reign while allowing one fewer goal (19). The 2018 Courage broke both of those records last year with 53 goals for and 17 goals against, both records.
The Courage do have a solid shot at breaking the goal scoring record. They’re just three goals short with two games remaining, but they’re still 5 goals back from the all-time best goal differential of +36 set by the team last year. If they’re going to break these records, they’ll need to put up a solid performance against the Washington Spirit. That might not be such a hard thing to do.
The Spirit have taken a nose-dive
The Washington Spirit, under the leadership of new head coach Richie Burke, started the season like a dream. They barely escaped finishing at the bottom of the league in 2018 and they scored just 12 goals in their 24 games that season. Everyone expected them to be better, but the Spirit shocked the league by earning 18 points in their first 9 games. No team started the season better, and the Spirit briefly took their spot at the top of the standings. Unfortunately, the wheels fell off shortly thereafter.
In their last 12 games, the Spirit have played more like their old selves. They’ve managed to scrape together just 9 more points, and the team is effectively eliminated from a chance at the playoffs. The entire system that had been built to control the ball and create high-efficiency shot opportunities has instead turned into an inefficient mess.
Midfielder Andi Sullivan, who briefly looked like she would play her way back onto the USWNT, has not been the same dominant distributer that she was earlier in the season. Neither Mallory Pugh nor Rose Lavelle have been able to stay healthy since returning from the World Cup in France. The rookies on the squad have seemingly hit a rookie wall, and the team just looks tired. The last two Washington wins came on July 24th against Sky Blue FC and August 24th against the Orlando Pride. Neither of those wins were convincing, and the rest of the schedule has been pockmarked with draws and losses. The fairy tale start to the season has turned into a nightmare.
Predicting the Courage lineup
As of now, there is no reason to believe that head coach Paul Riley will be looking to rest his stars. He has consistently lamented the lack of physical preparation that the USWNT gives his players, so it’s unlikely that he will give Abby Dahlkemper, Crystal Dunn, Sam Mewis, Jessica McDonald, or Kristen Hamilton (probably) a rest before they head off to National Team camp. I’m still not 100% sure about who Riley likes as his starting forwards, and the NWSL has decided that injury reports give everyone too much information. This is my best guess.
It’s hard not to love this lineup. Sully has been one of the best defensive midfielders in the league all season, and it’s amazing to see that she completely beat out McCall Zerboni for the starting spot. Kristen Hamilton could sub in for McDonald or start in her place, but otherwise the lineup is pretty well set at this point.
How to watch
The North Carolina Courage kick off against the Washington Spirit at 7:00 p.m. ET on Saturday night. The game will be broadcast on Yahoo! Sports or on the local broadcast station WRAL-2. The game will be carried on ESPN internationally.