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NWSL Week in Review: North Carolina already tough to catch

Mallory Pugh (photo copyright EriMac Photo for The Equalizer)

Five weeks into the NWSL season, North Carolina is a ridiculous seven points clear at the top of the table. Those are the facts and they are undisputed, even in today’s environment.

There are also valid reasons why that might be flattering to them and they may not be quite as dominant as that seems. First, they have played more matches than anyone else but Chicago (who plays again Wednesday?) and twice as many as Sky Blue. They have played four of their first six matches at home. While they did not have Debinha for the last couple weeks, the Courage had less players away on international duty to begin the campaign. And parity behind them (partly due to the previous reason and somewhat due to injuries) has only one other NWSL team with a current goal differential better than +1.

PODCAST: John Halloran joins the group to discuss Sam Kerr’s debut with the Chicago Red Stars

But I come not to bury North Carolina this week, but to praise them. I’ve done so before in this space, but I still feel like they don’t get enough credit for the dominant NWSL force they have been able to put together. My favorite fact about the rise of the franchise is still that Western New York had ZERO players on the final 2016 U.S. national team’s Olympic roster.

The rest, of course, is history you can read for yourself, from the explosion of Sam Mewis to Lynn Williams’s rise to MVP to Abby Dahlkemper and McCall Zerboni being perhaps the best players in the league at their respective positions last year.

For now, let’s focus on 2018, with the immediate difference being the addition of Crystal Dunn, a perfect piece to add to Paul Riley’s system: speed on the flanks and someone who can get up and down the field with the best players in the world.

North Carolina wants to get the ball behind opposing defenses as quickly as possible and then not let them out of the end –ever if possible. This does not often lead to the “beautiful” style that other clubs aspire to, but the results (with plenty of data points by now) are unmistakable, even to their staunchest detractors.

While against a Houston team that will likely finish near the bottom of the standings, Saturday was another perfect example of what they do (although the fact they finished with 64% possession is an aberration). Jess McDonald and Lynn Williams use their speed up top to pressure everything, followed by Dunn and (in this case) Kristen Hamilton. McCall Zerboni and Denise O’Sullivan – who has done a fantastic and energetic job in place of Mewis – pop up seemingly everywhere in the middle and don’t allow any time for opponents to build. Then Dahlkemper, Abby Erceg, Jaelene Hinkle, and Merritt Mathias deal with anything played longer and get it back to one of the front six before the other team can think about escaping from the submission hold.

Eventually, Dunn scored off a long throw and Hamilton put up a potential Goal of the Week off a corner, and it was three more points for the Courage.

It’s pretty simple in theory, but not at all simple to execute, especially long-term.

There are potential flaws, of course. Dahlkemper’s form has not been quite as good this season, and any mistakes in the back can be magnified (Houston was very unlucky not to even the game midway through the first half). Fatigue can set in as the schedule gets busy. North Carolina will play in an international tournament this summer and it will be interesting to see how Riley rotates his players. They looked tired last week against Utah and had to settle for a home draw.

Then there is the lack of finishing, which was on display Saturday again. On the flip side of that, though, if North Carolina gets most of the chances every game, odds are they’ll win, correct? At least that’s how it’s rolled for the last couple of seasons.

The Courage are far from invulnerable. One of the big takeaways of this week is that teams will be better when they are fully healthy and with their international talent back. Amy Rodriguez, Tobin Heath, Alanna Kennedy, Marta, Katrina Gorry, Sam Kerr, Emily van Egmond (surely I’m missing a few) all showed some of the class that will help both their teams and the league. North Carolina will get Mewis and Debinha back full-time, so it should improve as well, but their pressing will be more difficult against full teams.

For now, though, the Courage already look to be headed to another NWSL Shield. Hopefully if that happens, everyone involved will get the credit they deserve along the way.

What else did we learn in Week 5 of the NWSL season, where 1-1 was the score du jour?

SATURDAY (recaps)

Houston 0:2 North Carolina

What Went Down: The first Courage goal (in just the fourth minute) is tough to watch from a defensive standpoint, as the Dash must have known the long throws were coming and defended that one horribly, giving Crystal Dunn basically a tap-in. For Houston, it (again) wasn’t terrible, they looked organized in the back and created that one big chance that should have been a goal. But that possession number against a team like North Carolina is disturbing and without a consistent offense, we’ll see if morale suffers in the near future.

The Courage have a much tougher stretch coming up at the end of the month, and Chicago next weekend, which should be a fascinating encounter. It will be interesting to see what Riley does with O’Sullivan and Hamilton (see below) when his team is fully healthy (which they might be by Sunday). We shall see.

Player of the Game: Kristen Hamilton – You may remember Makenzy Doniak – a key member of the Western New York rise – is out for the season and with Ashley Hatch traded to Washington, the Courage needed a player like Hamilton to step up. And she has, certainly doing so Saturday. This is the underrated part of the team’s success.

Under the Radar: Denise O’Sullivan – I’m required by law to point out again that O’Sullivan was basically cut from the Dash last season and has now become an extremely productive member of the top team in the league. She does what she’s asked, and played a big part in Hamilton’s goal by keeping the ball alive, a key part of the North Carolina system as well.

Inside the Numbers: 6 – Number of blocked shots from Janine Van Wyk, which has to be some kind of league record or something. Jane Campbell only had five saves of North Carolina’s 27 shots.

Up next: Houston – at Sky Blue (Sat.); North Carolina – vs. Chicago (Sun.)

Washington 1:1 Chicago (Lauletta)

What Went Down: Rory Dames will be upset about his team’s ridiculously slow start that eventually cost them a goal (and probably two points), and there were some vulnerabilities in the Red Stars’ defense, but this also applies to any defense that has to defend Mallory Pugh and Francisca Ordega on counter-attacks. On the plus side, Chicago dominated most of the match, Sam Kerr looked dangerous even if she didn’t score, and the Red Stars got much better when Julie Ertz came on the field. But two games remain this week.

The Spirit need Rose Lavelle to make their offense really lethal, but it’s unclear when she will return. As it stands, they had some trouble controlling the midfield (an area where Chicago has been strong, even without Ertz) and that limits how dangerous their front can be. We’ll see how Jim Gabarra attacks that problem (getting Lavelle healthy would help).

Player of the Game: Taylor Comeau – Another player filling in for someone not in the lineup (Casey Short in this case), Comeau was late getting to Washington’s goal, but had a great 86 minutes afterward, basically assisting on Chicago’s goal and being a factor at both ends from her right back spot.

Under the Radar: Mallory Pugh/Sam Kerr – Neither one is ever really going to be under the radar and both played a big role in their team’s goals, but just wanted to point out how fun it is to watch them play. Kerr tried some ridiculous volley to herself early in the second half and nearly got in on frame. It’s that kind of matchup that should draw more than 3,448 fans. But what do I know?

Inside the Numbers: 3 – Number of goals for Alyssa Mautz this season, which is three more than a lot of people would have thought, and the Red Stars have needed all three.

Up next: Washington – at Utah (Sat.); Chicago – vs. Orlando (Wed.)

Orlando 1:1 Seattle

What Went Down: So the Pride looked much better with Marta on board (as well as Alanna Kennedy, Emily van Egmond, and Monica), but did not score in the run of play against a Reign team without Megan Rapinoe and Jess Fishlock (after she got injured in the second half). Tom Sermanni’s decision on whom to replace Marta with turned out to not be a striker, but Dani Weatherholt in the midfield, which was not a rousing success. And Orlando’s defense still didn’t look great in the back at times, so while there’s potential, still work to be done. Sydney Leroux played 90 minutes and worked hard, but did not score and kept Allie Long onside for the Reign goal.

It’s a good point for Seattle, who stood tall for most of the night and created a few chances of their own, even without Rapinoe. They got a little fortunate on their goal, but that’s how Long plays and it was a very good performance for a defense (including Kristen McNabb) which didn’t really have a holding midfielder in front of them.

Player of the Game: Allie Long – Long was a first-team NWSL XI player not long ago and her addition went a little under the radar for Seattle, but she is a strong force that should only be better when the Reign is fully healthy. They’ll need her if they have hopes to make the playoffs.

Under the Radar: Megan Oyster – I’m sure Oyster feels bad about committing the foul (a needless one) that led to Marta’s free kick goal (welcome back), but she was solid throughout, including getting an assist on Long’s goal.

Inside the Numbers: 4 – Number of defenders Tom Sermanni lined up with Saturday, with Toni Pressley and Ali Krieger on the outside. It’s probably not ideal, but you have to play with the rosters you have in the NWSL.

Up next: Orlando – at Chicago (Wed.); Seattle – at Portland (Sat.)

Utah 1:1 Portland

What Went Down: The teams split the points, but if you weren’t happy to see Amy Rodriguez and Tobin Heath score, you probably don’t have a heart considering all they went through. Portland, like Chicago, will be upset at the defensive miscue that allowed Utah to score, but did dominate a road game even if it didn’t capture the three points to go with it. And like Julie Ertz, Heath made the Thorns much better when she entered (and don’t try that finish at home, it’s not easy).

Still, the Royals did give the ball away before Heath’s goal. It’s easy to blame Desiree Scott, but a closer look sees the miscue start with Becky Sauerbrunn who played the ball to Scott, despite being back to goal in a vulnerable spot in her own third. Sauerbrunn knew it almost immediately and tried to ask for the ball back, but it was too late. Little things, as the Royals remain winless.

Player of the Game: Margaret Purce – As she has gotten more and more used to the 3-5-2 Portland plays, Purce has become more valuable, able to be a force in the attack and her influence should only grow as the season progresses and the Thorns get to full strength.

Under the Radar: Andressinha – Obviously much was made of Christen Press’s “exit” from Houston (and she scored more goals in Sweden this weekend), but the fact that Portland basically just took one of league’s best playmakers from Houston for Savannah Jordan in January (there were other salary cap considerations, but still) was an interesting offseason move for the Dash. Very interesting.

Inside the Numbers: 1 – Number of shots on goal for Utah, which is going to have to find another consistent attacker to go with Rodriguez. Might it be Elise Thorsnes? She didn’t record a single shot in 90 minutes Saturday.

Up next: Utah – vs. Washington (Sat.); Portland – vs. Seattle (Sat.)

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