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NC Courage @ Sky Blue FC match preview: Everything is falling into place

For a third straight NWSL Shield

North Carolina Courage v Chicago Red Stars
Lynn Williams should have a good night against the Sky Blue defense.
Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

The North Carolina Courage have played just one league game since they threw away an opportunity to beat Portland Thorns FC on August 11th. When the Courage lost that game, courtesy of two own goals, it felt like an appropriate encapsulation of this season. The ball bounced the right way for North Carolina from the first to the last game in 2018, and we were paying back all that good fortune in 2019. Sure, the team was still great, but the stars weren’t aligned and we might even miss out on a home playoff game if we made the playoffs. Chicago was ahead of us with the tiebreaker and Portland had just won to take their lead in the standings. Things didn’t look bleak, but it felt like an uphill climb.

Then everything broke the right way. Chicago lost their next three games, allowing the Courage to overtake them by beating Reign FC in their only league game. Portland lost last night, leaving them five points ahead of the Courage in the race for the Shield, but North Carolina has three games in hand. If everything goes right today, the Courage will be two points back with two games in hand. That’s an enviable position if there ever was one, but Sky Blue isn’t going to be a push over.

Sky Blue FC is turning a corner

When Sky Blue FC fired head coach Denise Reddy after their ninth game this season, nobody really expected anything to change. With just one win in 33 attempts, it was certainly time to move on from Reddy, but everyone believed the roster was just plain bad.

Then they won the first game without a formal head coach. And they won their second game without a formal head coach. In fact, since Reddy’s departure, Sky Blue FC has four wins, two draws, and four losses. 1.5 points per game certainly isn’t record-breaking, but paced out over a whole season that would certainly be good enough to put them in playoff contention.

Sky Blue FC v Seattle Reign
Paige Monaghan looks like a rising star in the NWSL.
Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

It’s tough to accurately pin down the change. Goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan has been amazing all season, and losing her during the World Cup definitely hurt SBFC. They were also missing Carli Lloyd during that time, but she didn’t come back until they already had two wins under their belt. Midfielder Julie James Doyle has grown into the game this year, and has played a big part holding the midfield together. Fellow rookie Paige Monaghan has also played well all over the field, including a two-goal performance to beat the Red Stars a few weeks back. After struggling with injuries all last season, Rocky Rodriguez has been excellent in an offensive midfield role. Everyone just looks like they want to be on the pitch, and now they know that winning is possible.

The battle in the midfield is going to be the most important part of the game today. Sky Blue doesn’t have the talent to consistently break down a press. The defense isn’t athletic enough to handle Lynn Williams, Kristen Hamilton, and Jess McDonald when they are playing well. As long as the Courage play their game, Sky Blue will have to rely on luck to get a point, but they’ve done that once this season already.

Predicting the Courage starting XI

On a rainy night back during the lowest part of the Courage season, Sky Blue FC went into Cary, North Carolina and force a 0-0 draw. It was a frustrating loss that started a four-game winless streak; the longest in team history. Both teams are significantly better than they were that night, but the Courage should have an edge with four USWNT players back in the lineup.

This is an important match for the Courage. A win this afternoon will give them a slight cushion heading into the final six games of the season. Anything less would be a disappointment, and it would complicate their path to the NWSL Shield. We’ve got the better team, now we just have to play like it.

How to watch

The game is scheduled to kick off at 3:00 p.m. ET at Yurcak Field in Piscataway, NJ. It will be broadcast on Yahoo! Sport in the United States and on ESPN elsewhere in the world.