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The Lowdown: How Courage players’ buy-in created an unbreakable team spirit

Photo Copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer

The North Carolina Courage were in New Jersey for a mundane, mid-season match at the league’s least vibrant venue against the bottom team in National Women’s Soccer League. The players were getting off the vans when assistant coach Scott Vallow announced that he needed help. Before details were given, three players turned around to assist – Crystal Dunn, Sam Mewis, and Lynn Williams.

“They turned around and walked back behind me to go help Scott,” head coach Paul Riley said. “That’s what kind of team we are. People think we’re this team of superstars, but we’re the complete opposite.”

No one has ever denied that Courage of personnel, but it is the buy-in on — and off — the field that has made them the most dominant team in the 12-year history of women’s professional soccer in the United States. Mewis, a regular starter for the United States women’s national team in 2017, was just as willing to lend a hand to the assistant coach as she was to accept that a return from knee surgery did not mean an automatic return to the starting lineup in North Carolina.

“We just have a really tight-knit group,” Mewis said at NWSL Championship media day. “No one is in this for themselves. This whole team really wants what’s best for the team. Obviously my role here was never guaranteed. I’ve had to earn every minute I’ve gotten. That’s just a huge testament to how talented everybody is.”

When veteran Heather O‘Reilly decided to return to NWSL, her preferred destination was North Carolina, where she lives with her husband. But even beyond that, the 33-year old, highly decorated international star was reeled in, hook, line and sinker by the culture of her hometown club.

“I haven’t been on a team that’s been this absolutely dominant in a while,” O’Reilly said over the summer. “The similarities are certainly there. It’s not about competing against anybody else. It’s just about ourselves getting better.”

During the season, Riley introduced the team to the story of Ben Comen, a cross-country runner who suffers from cerebral palsy. As such he was slowest runner in his county during high school and would often fall during races. But Ben got better by competing against himself.

Comen was forced to use himself as a competitive barometer because he was the slowest person in Anderson County, South Carolina — at least among those who dared compete in cross-country. The Courage may not have ever been the slowest in NWSL, but like Ben they have been forced to compete against themselves.

Shaking off 2017’s finale

When the season began, the Courage were coming off a bitter defeat to Portland Thorns FC in the 2017 NWSL Championship. They had won the Shield, leading every Monday morning save one. Half of their six losses came to the Chicago Red Stars, but they defeated them 1-0 in the semifinal. In the final match of the 2017 season, Taylor Smith was injured in the opening few minutes, Kristen Hamilton later in the opening half, and a sloppy, ugly match went to the Thorns.

“The best approach was to let it go and let people deal with it on their own,” captain Abby Erceg said. “And make sure that when we came into the season we were ready to go. We weren’t still talking about it. It was a little bit fresh rather than having a massive grudge on our shoulder from last year.”

How Paul Riley built an indomitable culture around a once-broken team

The Courage downplayed the importance of playing the season-opener against the Thorns, a lopsided win even if the score was 1-0. But Erceg acknowledged in a recent interview that: “It was good to clear the cobwebs straight away and just get right into it and get that game out of the way. I think we would have held on to that for a little bit. It was good.”

Before anyone could blink, the Courage were 4-0-0. When they thrashed the Thorns in Portland in their first match after The 700 Club dropped a controversial piece on Jaelene Hinkle, the club was 9-0-2 and well on their way to another Shield. The team began using the hashtag #NoFinishLine to remind everyone, and maybe to remind themselves, that no number of wins was going to be enough.

“We never mention the word playoffs,” Riley kept insisting, echoing a catchphrase started in 2016 when he took over a young team loaded with talent but short on ideas and molded them into the most surprising of the six NWSL Champions to date. No one outside the walls of the locker room will ever know if the “P word” was really off limits, but every player I spoke to all season said the same thing.

Even after the 3-0 demolition of the Thorns in the NWSL Championship rematch, Riley seemed more pleased with how his side had played than he did the score line. “It was a good performance. Forget the result. The performance was good. We deserved to win the game,” he said, taking a stance much easier when there is a trophy at your side. (In the press conference following the 2017 NWSL Championship, Riley did say he was pleased with the performance, calling it brilliant at some stages of the match.)

Buy-in from every single player

Erceg said that she has been taken by Riley’s openness to communicate with the players. “He’s willing — this is what’s wrong with make coaches a lot of the time — he’s willing to have a conversation with a player, listen to what they have to say and then actually take that information and use it. So if we’re saying, ‘Paul we’re tired,’ he’ll adjust training based on what we’re saying. It’s a really good relationship dynamic.”

Jess McDonald’s journey to Championship MVP nearly never was

Cari Roccaro played for Riley as a teenager on Long Island, and when the Houston Dash made her part of their final roster cuts in March, she was adrift with her soccer career hanging in the balance. After a brief stint training with the Seattle Reign, Riley interrupted her trip to Utah, where she was vising her fiancé. Roccaro was all too happy to cut the trip short and head straight for North Carolina, where she eventually signed and spent most of the rest of the season as a bench player.

“I fell into this thing and wound up on an amazing team with an amazing culture,” Roccaro said. “I am so honored that my role is to push these girls.”

Roccaro added that when she began training with Riley again, she realized what had been lacking in the intervening years. “My habits have gotten worse. I had to get back to his style of play — playing sharper, quicker, taking looks over my shoulder. All the little nuances he had to bring back out of me.”

And then there was the day in June, during a FIFA break, when Roccaro and other depth players were running fitness.

“The national team was gone. It was all the girls that were actually going to play in the ICC [International Champions Cup],” she said. “It was a month and a half out and he said, ‘We’re going to run today because we need to be fit in July for the ICC and the Utah game [before the ICC].”

Riley was outspoken about his disdain for having players called in to U.S. camp early, particularly ones like McCall Zerboni and Merritt Mathias, who were on the Courage payroll and not subsidized. And when I questioned him about the ICC two weeks prior, he played the “I don’t know what we’re going to do,” card. But in reality he and the team were leaving little to chance.

“Those were the games all of us had to play in,” Roccaro said. “We got a tie and two wins out of those games which is incredible. You take out pretty much the starting 11 and add in all these girls who never really get to play. It’s a testament to his trainings and our mentality and the culture he has built to prepare us and make us feel like, at the drop of a hat, if something happens, every single person in this room is ready to go.”

Those matches were a 0-0 draw against the Royals — the only team to beat the Courage and the only team the Courage did not beat — and then tactical wins over Paris Saint-Germain and Lyon to snag the ICC.

Persevering through final hurdles

The September events that the Courage experienced would have broken most teams. It began on a FIFA break, but the bigger break was the one to Zerboni’s elbow during a U.S. friendly against Chile. Her season ended that night. With one game left and several records in sight — none of which anyone on the team acknowledged caring about — the team regrouped and began life without Zerboni by pulverizing the Dash, 5-0 in the final regular-season match. They set records set for: most wins, fewest losses, most points, most goals, fewest goals conceded.

“That was a good game for us to get used to what this lineup would be coming into playoffs,” Mewis said.

Shortly after the regular season ended, Hurricane Florence set its sights on the Carolinas and put the Courage’s home semifinal in jeopardy. While the front office fumed and tried desperately to keep the match in Cary, the players and coaches kept their heads down.

“Preparation for [the semifinal] wasn’t as good as it could have been,” Riley said of the game that wound up being pushed back 54 hours and shipped across the country to Portland. “We trained in pouring, windy conditions in North Carolina. We were grateful to get out of there on Sunday afternoon. The plane journey was rough to say the least. The first half an hour up in the air everyone was grabbing seats and holding on.”

The Courage promptly installed a defensive game plan that kept Sam Kerr in front of them all night and knocked off the Red Stars in a scratchy, 2-0 match. The Thorns had played their semifinal three days earlier, meaning they had nearly double the rest. Riley latched on to the rest and the absence of Zerboni to try and paint his side as underdogs.

“I think we’ve convinced everybody that it’s the world against us, and that’s the way we’re approaching the game,” Riley said last Friday.

The world never had a chance.


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