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North Carolina Courage

Week 19 Preview: North Carolina Could Clinch Playoffs

Debinha and Cheyna Williams compete in the Courage’s 1-0 win over the Spirit. (photo copyright EriMac Photo for The Equalizer)

North Carolina Courage at Washington Spirit

Wednesday, 7:30 p.m., Maryland SoccerPlex
All-time series: Courage lead, 7-3-3 (plus 0-0-1 playoffs)
In Washington: Courage lead, 3-1-3
Last meeting: August 19, 2017; 2-0 Courage

The difference in these two sides could not be starker. Washington and Boston were the first two teams eliminated from the playoffs last weekend, while North Carolina could be the first to clinch it. North Carolina returned the vast majority of last year’s squad, strengthening it along the way. Washington is in the first phase of a rebuild. North Carolina has won both matches already this year by a combined score of 3-0. Washington played last Saturday, while North Carolina comes into this match rested due to the postponement of their game at Houston. It’s an uneven matchup for the last scheduled midweek game, on tap as we start Week 19.

The Spirit may be playing for pride now, but they can still play spoiler, and the Portland Thorns would love a little assistance. The Spirit left their last game against Chicago with three major areas in need of work: passing, danger in the final third, and defensive recovery. They completed the match with a 65.15% passing accuracy among the 10 starting field players. Part of that was due to the disruptive nature of this match (Chicago’s was even lower), but North Carolina relies heavily on the same thing. They’re going to jump all over slow, sloppy, or telegraphed passes, and if the Spirit can’t retain possession and move the ball, they can’t shoot it. That was their second problem: they got exactly one shot on goal. Now, they scored on that shot, but it wasn’t enough. They need to be more creative in the final third and get multiple players into scoring positions. Relying too heavily on Mallory Pugh will help; she created twice as many chances as the rest of her team last weekend, which is great for her but poor for others. Working Estefania Banini and Francisca Ordega back in should help. And finally, their defense, which continues to play an extremely high line despite getting burned week after week. If that’s the game plan, it seems ripe to get exposed by the pace of Lynn Williams.

The Shield seems almost a foregone conclusion for the Courage at this point, but a lot can happen in a month. With two games in hand over Portland currently, they’d love to extend their two-point lead heading into the weekend and not leave themselves vulnerable to being surpassed. This year’s Courage isn’t as overwhelming on the attack as last year, with finishing problems dogging their strikers, but their defense is so tight that the one or two goals they can usually come up with is good enough. They’ve only been shut out twice this season, both in July, and have gone on to win four straight since then. Their last match against the Spirit (incidentally, their actual last match) was a hard fought clash in the midfield in which the Courage were outshot and lost the possession battle. It took an awful defensive error that Ashley Hatch jumped all over to start the second half and a truly dismal Washington own goal late in the match (which gave Kassey Kallman a concussion and kept her out last weekend) for them to seal the deal. They want to be a little more ruthless in the final third and come out with a high press.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Estefania Banini

We saw glimpse of a Banini-Pugh partnership early on before Banini got injured. Her half hour last weekend wasn’t notable, but if the Spirit are to have success both in this game and in the future, it is vital that these two creators find each other.

Taylor Smith

Her speed can be deadly to opposing wingers and should give Alyssa Kleiner a headache. However, the Spirit have plenty of speed of their own and she wants to avoid getting caught out.

Keep an eye on:
• Who is in goal for the Spirit
• If Nora Holstad Berge sees any time

{Read More: Sunday’s Houston Dash home match moved to Frisco}

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