In case you haven’t noticed, North Carolina is threatening to pull away with the NWSL Shield as we reach the 2017 season’s midpoint, and it’s far from a fluke. The Courage lead the league in shots, shots on goal, and least shots allowed. Although they only prevailed 1-0 at Boston Saturday and did have some anxious moments in the final minutes, they outshot the improved Breakers 11-0 in a dominant first half.
Many expected North Carolina to come back to the pack after a poor display in Orlando and a failed Jess McDonald in a three-back (and a suspension to Abby Erceg) experiment led to a dreadful first half and a Chicago rout in North Carolina. The Red Stars appear to remain the Courage’s top challenger at the top, but the league leaders haven’t dropped a point since, and – after having some defensive problems last season – have conceded only a single goal in June, and that was very late in a game it had already all but won.
But, at the inherent risk of hexing the Courage with three months left in the campaign, it’s worth examining how we got here. If your long-term memory fails you, the 2015 Western New York Flash finished their season seventh (of nine teams) in NWSL, at one point winning just one of 10 matches.
In the season finale, though, the Flash scored three times in the first 25 minutes to beat then hapless Portland, who managed only 23 points in 2015 (the same as WNY) despite all its resources and the best women’s soccer crowds in the world. Therefore, it wasn’t a huge surprise coach Paul Riley was let go, and it looked like that might be the end of Riley in the NWSL until in February of 2016 (only a month before the season), he was tabbed to replace Aaran Lines.
The rest, of course, is history. After failing with plenty of star power, Riley won the NWSL title a year later with the only team that did not have a single USWNT Olympian in Brazil. But it’s worth noting that it wasn’t exactly a roster overhaul from Riley that has led to the Courage’s rise to the top franchise in NWSL.
Sam Mewis, Lynn Williams, Jaelene Hinkle, Abby Dahlkemper, Elizabeth Eddy, and Sabrina D’Angelo were all regulars on that 2015 Flash squad that struggled. Abby Erceg was traded for a month before Riley was hired, and Makenzy Doniak (with apologies to Abby Smith, probably the steal of the 2016 draft at this point) was selected at the same time.
Players and coaches across the @NWSL are wearing this armband today in memory of @tonysocc.
Stream: https://t.co/BAqNPw9W1b #BAONPDX pic.twitter.com/WCTJhNJZ6P
— Portland Thorns FC (@ThornsFC) June 24, 2017
Stream: https://t.co/BAqNPw9W1b #BAONPDX pic.twitter.com/WCTJhNJZ6P
— Portland Thorns FC (@ThornsFC) June 24, 2017
Perhaps the most interesting case is that of now all-time NWSL goal scorer McDonald. McDonald played for Riley in Portland, scoring 11 goals in 2014 (third-best in NWSL). But after Riley relegated her to the bench when Alex Morgan and Christine Sinclair returned, McDonald left before the 2015 season, eventually being traded to Houston. Then a month before Riley was hired, the Flash acquired McDonald in what largely seemed like a trade to move Sydney Leroux to Kansas City, where her husband Dom Dwyer plays for Sporting Kansas City.
To Riley’s (and McDonald’s) credit, the past has merely been prologue and McDonald has thrived along with the rest of her teammates recently. The only two pieces of the Courage starting lineup that are new since Riley’s arrival are McCall Zerboni and Debinha. Both have been massive additions, although Zerboni’s acquisition came partly to be closer to her now-husband Courage assistant Scott Vallow (Ashley Hatch and Taylor Smith were also added on Riley’s watch, it should be noted).
What Riley and his staff have done is give North Carolina an identity, a pressing, aggressive style predicated on speed that fits the personnel he has almost perfectly. Williams and McDonald (although neither has played in two weeks and the Courage have won both) have tirelessly run into channels with their quickness, Zerboni and Mewis have covered a ton of ground in the middle and are seen making tackles on just about every inch of the field. Doniak and Debinha add a little creativity and have bought into the aggressive mindset. Eddy (or Taylor Smith) and Hinkle are able to get into the attack while still being quality defenders, and Erceg and Dahlkemper have matured into one of the league’s top center back tandems.
Very Special team & staff. If u want to go fast go alone,
If u want to go far go together #couragecountry #junkyarddogs#staytheCOuRsE pic.twitter.com/bcercOPAwp
— Paul Riley (@prileyfury4life) June 23, 2017
Are they unbeatable? Absolutely not. But they are the best team in NWSL, an improbable scenario for almost all of them, especially Riley, just 18 months ago.
What else did we learn as the race for the playoff spots did not really clear up at all?
Orlando 0:2 Houston (recap)
What Went Down: I couldn’t have been the only one to roll their eyes when Carli Lloyd was on the Lifetime pregame saying how she was going to instill her passion and work ethic and will to win on the Dash now, a couple of weeks after arriving, and a few days after a 4-2 battering by the Pride in Lloyd’s 2017 debut. And then Houston went out and showed all of those positive things on a brutally hot afternoon in Orlando, and Lloyd scored a trademark goal from 25 yards out for the winner. So ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, I say. The most impressive thing for the Dash might be keeping a clean sheet, this time with Amber Brooks and Janine Van Wyk as the center back pairing and Jane Campbell in goal. We’ll see if that works in the future. Kealia Ohai did suffer what looked like a scary non-contact knee injury which was later confirmed to be a season-ending ACL tear.
Tom Sermanni had Marta tucked in behind Rachel Hill and it just didn’t seem to work. We never really heard much from Camila, and Houston were dominant after the Pride had a couple of good chances in the opening half hour or so. This could be a big blow to Orlando’s playoff hopes in the end.
Player of the Game: Poliana – On a 95-degree day, Poliana went 90 minutes and got into the Houston attack several times, recording both assists and coming within a couple of inches of adding a goal of her own. She has been tremendous going forward this season, it’s the other end that’s been an issue at times.
Under the Radar: Jane Campbell – Campbell’s first NWSL start was a disaster, as she never looked comfortable and got no help as the Dash conceded five times in Seattle. So it was good to see her get a clean sheet and her defense step up as well. We don’t know what her future holds, but she certainly wasn’t as bad as her debut.
Inside the Numbers: 4 – Number of fouls suffered by Rachel Daly, whose defensive experiment seems done. If Ohai is out, Daly will be counted on to score even more.
Up next: Orlando – at Sky Blue (Wed.); Houston – vs. Boston (Wed.)
Boston 0:1 North Carolina (recap)
What Went Down: You wondered if the Courage’s failure to put the game away in the first half might cost them, as they were just all over the Breakers but scored only once. Alas, it was enough. Full credit to the Breakers for coming out in the second half the way they did, but they are still back where they finished last season, the bottom of the table. And without Rose Lavelle coming back anytime soon, it might be a rough road for Boston. The Courage do not have to play on Wednesday, either, and should have a 100 percent Lynn Williams ready for Sky Blue on Saturday.
Player of the Game: Sam Mewis – Some of the Courage’s success is just patience with a core group as well. Mewis showed signs as a rookie of what was coming, but it isn’t until recently that she has matured into a probable USWNT starting selection. Saturday, she had another ridiculous pass to set up the winning goal and is just owning midfields along with Zerboni in NWSL.
Under the Radar: Sammy Jo Prudhomme – With Abby Smith out, Prudhomme looked solid in her debut, including one very good save on Kristen Hamilton in the first half. Boston hopes to have Smith back soon, but does play again on Wednesday.
Inside the Numbers: 3 – Number of shots on goal from North Carolina. So even with all their dominance, the Courage didn’t exactly transform that into peppering Boston’s goal.
Up next: North Carolina – vs. Sky Blue (Sat.); Boston – at Houston (Wed.)
Washington 1:0 Portland (recap | Gordon)
What Went Down: The most disturbing part for the Thorns is that they weren’t unlucky in this match, and don’t have a real good case that they’ve been hard done this season. In fact, sitting at 15 points and still (barely) in a playoff spot might be a bit flattering. Yes, Portland had 62% of possession, but did very little with it (3 shots on goal), and much of that was the Spirit sitting back with a lead in the second half. With Tobin Heath out long-term and Dagny Brynsjarsdottir (who came off the bench Saturday), Nadia Nadim, and Amandine Henry soon heading to Euro 2017, there might be trouble a’brewing in Portland.
Meanwhile, Washington dominated the first half and if you throw Mallory Pugh in this lineup, it does not look bad. The key will be keeping the defense solid, but it certainly was Saturday.
Player of the Game: Francisca Ordega – The winning goal was all her, and she seems to do that on a weekly basis, alas not getting the recognition of some of the other stars in the league. She should be able to partner wonderfully with Pugh and possibly someone like Katie Stengel into a fairly competent attacking force.
Under the Radar: Tori Huster – Huster returned, and it’s likely not a coincidence that the Spirit looked much more organized with her involved. Plus, the go90 cameras were having some white balancing issues, which made Huster’s hair like superhero red, especially wearing a red uniform as well.
Inside the Numbers: 5 – Number of fouls committed by Ordega, which probably was not mentioned by Jim Gabarra to Mark Parsons after the game, even if he had a point on Hayley Raso’s foul at the end of the game.
Up next: Washington – at Boston (Sat.); Portland – vs. Kansas City (Wed.)
Seattle 1:1 Kansas City (recap)
What Went Down: Sometimes discretion has to be the better part of valor, and when it’s the fourth minute of a game, Lauren Barnes probably should have just let Shea Groom go after Groom stripped her and had a breakaway. Instead, she took a pretty obvious red card, and the Reign had to play 86 minutes with 10 players and Barnes is suspended for Wednesday’s game.
All that being considered, Seattle played pretty well, with Jess Fishlock filling in at center back because, of course, and being able to equalize in the second half. It can’t be a satisfying result for either team, however, both teams could see this as a springboard to jump into the playoff race: Seattle dropping two points at home and Kansas City not being able to close out a game it had a player advantage for 86 minutes. Those are the margins that could separate playoffs from no playoffs.
Player of the Game: Megan Rapinoe – It was almost as if Rapinoe made it her personal mission to get something out of this match after Barnes was sent off, doing everything from playing as a lone striker to her more familiar spot out wide to covering in defensive areas. Seattle has struggled at times, but Rapinoe has probably been their most consistent player.
Under the Radar: Brittany Taylor – Part of it was due to having an extra player, but Taylor was very active in the FCKC attack and nearly had a goal and an assist.
Inside the Numbers: 5 – Number of time Lo’eau LaBonta was fouled by Seattle, as FCKC had 60% of the possession thanks to having an extra person on the field.
Up next: Seattle – vs. Chicago (Wed.); Kansas City – at Portland (Wed.)
Chicago 2:1 Sky Blue (recap)
What Went Down: Again, the Red Stars looked sluggish and without many answers at home, but whenever we start to get seriously worried about them, they find a way. In this case, it was a long range bomb from Vanessa DiBernardo and a turn and fire by Sofia Huerta within minutes of each other to give Chicago the full three points. The Red Stars (who scored just 24 goals last season) never seem to batter the opponents’ goal the way North Carolina does, but they are now unbeaten in seven matches and they have ended up on top more than not, as they did here. Like Ohai for Houston, an injury to Danielle Colaprico (sprained ankle) may take some of the luster off the three points.
It was a wasted opportunity for Sky Blue, who didn’t create much after their opening goal, and did not respond to what should have been an expected response from the Red Stars. But that’s part of being a young team as well, and hopefully for their sake they’ll learn from a game like this. Chicago held Sam Kerr in check for 90 minutes, which is no small feat considering the form she was in before Sunday.
67' – #CHI Goal – What a finish by @schuerta who finds a seam and fires a shot into the side netting. #CHIvNJ pic.twitter.com/F3ZFsjtZDx
— NWSL (@NWSL) June 25, 2017
Player of the Game: Sofia Huerta – You wonder if Huerta may indeed get a long-awaited USWNT call-up in the offseason. She nearly set up a couple of goals in the first half and did not have much space to get the winning strike off. Huerta hasn’t been consistently dangerous in NWSL, but she’s been enough (as she was in this one) to at least be on Jill Ellis’ radar.
Under the Radar: Katie Naughton – You could probably throw Sam Johnson in here as well, but Naughton continues to be impressive and show that Rory Dames probably made the correct move when he moved Julie Ertz into the midfield.
Inside the Numbers: 7 – Number of home games that the Red Stars have played already this season, meaning that they will have to do the job on the road if they want any chance of catching North Carolina.
Up next: Chicago – at Seattle (Wed.); Sky Blue – vs. Orlando (Wed.)
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