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NWSL team preview: North Carolina Courage: We don’t use the word

Abby Dahlkemper has started every regular season game since being drafted 3rd overall in 2015. (photo credit: ISI Photos/Andy Mead)

Abby Dahlkemper has started every regular season game since being drafted 3rd overall in 2015. (photo credit: ISI Photos/Andy Mead)

Abby Dahlkemper has started every regular season game since being drafted 3rd overall in 2015. (photo credit: ISI Photos/Andy Mead)

2016 record: 9-6-5, 32 pts (4th place)
Playoffs: won NWSL Championship
Head Coach: 
Paul Riley
Home Ground: Sahlen’s Stadium

The story of ’16

Year two of the great rebuild began slowly. The Western New York Flash, as they were known in 2016, did not score a goal from the run of play in April. A May 14 loss in Orland dropped the team to 2-3-0 for new head coach Paul Riley. And then came an unusual, seven-match homestand. The Flash earned 18 of a possible 21 points and set sail for the playoffs. They stumbled late, losing two and drawing five in the immediate aftermath of their long home stretch, and then finished the season by throttling the Breakers to secure the 4th seed.

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When they got to the playoffs, the Flash upset the Shield winning Thorns in a, 4-3, remember-where-you-were, extra time classic.  “It was probably a couple of months ago I watched the highlights and was like ‘wow that really happened,’” Abby Dahlkemper, who cleared a would-be equalizer off the line in the final moments, said. “It was fun to be a part of.”

A week later the Flash snatched penalty kicks from the jaw of defeat when Lynn Williams tied the NWSL Championship in the dying moments of stoppage time. Three Sabrina D’Angelo penalty saves later the Flash were the unlikeliest of NWSL Champions.

“We weren’t the best team in the league last year,” Riley said. “We did what we had to do I guess to win a championship. It’s pretty well I the background now.”

Not the best maybe, but as Riley said, good enough to get themselves on the list of league champions.

What happened over the winter

There were not many changes to the championship roster but even if there were the biggest news was always going to be off the field.  On January 9 the Sahlen family entered into an agreement with Steve Malik to sell the team and relocate to Cary, North Carolina. For statistical purposes the North Carolina Courage are viewing themselves as a club starting from scratch, but a majority of the roster plus Riley and assistant Scott Vallow all made the move to the Triangle.

“It’s definitely a big change coming down from New York and relocating,” Dahlkemper said. “The soccer community here in North Carolina is amazing. They’re all behind us and excited for women’s soccer to be back.”

Paul Riley coached the Flash to the 2016 NWSL Championship, and then made the move with the club to North Carolina.  (Photo Copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

Paul Riley coached the Flash to the 2016 NWSL Championship, and then made the move with the club to North Carolina. (Photo Copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

The move made the Courage part of North Carolina FC and of Malik’s vision to have the best women’s and men’s soccer clubs in America. It also allows the players to train and play in the same city after the inconvenience of Western New York where the club’s home base was in Buffalo, more than 70 miles from their home stadium in Rochester.

“We’re starting to know the community” Dahlkemper said.”It definitely helps being in one location. The facilities are right there and the team all lives together in the complexes (in housing paid for by the team—Dahlkemper called just after attending a team pot luck event. The men’s team also lives in the complex.) We’re starting to know the community. As far as events and appearances, we’re doing as many as we can.”

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There were a few personnel moves too. Brazilians Rosana and Debinha were brought in to shore up the midfield and Japanese defender Yuru Kawamura also signed. The club also traded Alanna Kennedy to Orlando, yielding Sam Witteman.

Draft day was not dull either. Having previously acquired the Pride’s 1st Round pick, the newly minted Courage had the 2nd pick and used it on Ashley Hatch.  With their natural 1st Round pick the Courage took Darian Jenkins who opens her pro career on the disabled list but could have a bright future in the league.

Player to Watch

Debinha crashed the international stage last summer with a standout performance at the Olympics and now the Courage are hoping she can add a creative dynamic to their attacking group. A tireless worker with a nose for the ball and a flare for taking on defenders, the 25-year old could help the Courage add some variety to their attack.

“I feel like we’re going to be a bit better than what we were going forward,” Riley said while mentioning some of his new additions.

Like most coaches, Riley is not letting on about what shape his team might play. Debinha figures to settle in somewhere just underneath Williams and Jess McDonald and her presence should allow Sam Mewis to dictate more of the action from deeper.

If Debinha, who once scored 23 times in 30 appearances for Norwegian club Avaldsnes IL, finds herself comfortable in NWSL and clicking with Mewis, the Courage will be incredibly difficult to defend.

Best Case Scenario

The Courage pick up where the Flash left off, the young core headlined by Dahlkemper, Mewis, and Williams continues to get better, and the team both competes for the Shield and repeats as NWSL Champions. Just don’t tell them that.

“We don’t talk about it. We don’t use the word,” Riley said, mirroring last year’s motto when they never used the word playoffs.

Cause for Pause

The rest of the league figures out how to isolate Williams and McDonald up top—a formula Jim Gabarra may have already started on in the NWSL Championship—the loss of Alanna Kennedy is too much to overcome and the sudden weight of expectations for a team that is still quite young combine to torpedo the season.

Final Outlook

The Courage enter the season as one of the most unique defending champions ever in sports. The club and league are treating them as a new club but the core of the group of the same one that raised the trophy in Houston last October. And with Dahlkemper, Williams, Mewis, D’Angelo, and Jaelene Hinkle entering their third season after being drafted together in 2015, there remains much room for improvement.

“I feel like we can be better than we were last year,” Riley said. “We really didn’t play great at times. Sometimes we were dynamic, other times we weren’t so good. Adding some consistency will be key and being better defensively will be important.”

Last year the Flash played without an ounce of external expectation and won the NWSL Championship. This year expectations are higher and opposing coaches have had a year to try and unlock the riddle.

“It’s a humble young group again,” Riley assured. “They just all want to get better.”

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