The North Carolina Courage are struggling.
That phrase, which is intentionally left on its own as the opening paragraph, is not one we have been able to utter since the team arrived in Cary from Western New York in January 2017. Sure, they have struggled in spurts or through games, but for the first time as the Courage, they are struggling in a macro kind of way.
In their first two seasons in North Carolina, the Courage never played three straight matches without a win. Their current winless streak is four. They had never been lower than second place or more than a favorable week’s results away from the top of the table. This week, the Courage are seventh of nine. They are only four points behind the leaders but they have played one more match than five of the six squads they are looking up at.
Why is this all happening?
Let’s start with the obvious. Many of the best Courage players are with their national teams. Crystal Dunn was the best player in the league for the three games before she hit the road, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. If you look at the Courage as a team made up of five lines — two for the midfield, where they traditionally play with two holding and two attacking — there is at least one player missing from all of them. These players are not easily replaced or done without, but it feels like something else is amiss with this team, the first to defend the Shield/NWSL Championship double.
“In bits and pieces [we] were good in the game,” Courage coach Paul Riley said following Monday night’s 2-1 loss away to Reign FC. “The second half, we started to get into the game, but I thought the first half we were all over the place, turning the ball over in poor areas. A little bit unlike us, in the midfield.”
The midfield personnel is not the same as it is with Dunn and Sam Mewis, but the players the Courage had Monday should have been enough to go toe-to-toe with Reign FC. One of them is McCall Zerboni, whose last year has been a professional whirlwind. After looking like she would have a remarkable career that would include everything but a fair shake to make a major U.S. roster, last summer she was suddenly on a fast-track to the World Cup. And then she was pulled down awkwardly in a September friendly against Chile, broke her elbow, and did not play again last season. She made it back in time to suit up for the U.S. at the start of 2019, but there has been something missing from her game ever since. When the World Cup roster was announced, Zerboni’s name was not on it.
The most common sentiment was that Zerboni would take her frustrations out on the rest of the NWSL. That has not exactly happened. It’s not like Zerboni has played poorly for the Courage, but her no-holds-barred, ruler-of-the-midfield self has not been there nearly enough. Even on the narrow field at Cheney Stadium on Monday, Zerboni was not able to be disruptive enough to prevent the ball from finding its way to Darian Jenkins, who did plenty of damage in an entertaining match-up against Merritt Mathias. For much of the match, Denise O’Sullivan was the more effective defender in the Courage midfield.
Up top lies another player who at one time had eyes on being at the World Cup. Lynn Williams was the trendy pick to win this year’s golden boot considering that she would be the focus of the Courage attack while playing against many shorthanded defenses. But Williams has also struggled without her strike partner, Jess McDonald. In the 1-1 draw against Utah Royals FC two weeks ago, Williams had myriad opportunities to change that result in the Courage’s favor, but the finishing issues that have plagued her over the years were front and center. The Courage outshot the Royals 18-2 but did not win the match. Finishing was a major reason why.
Riley signed Swedish striker Julia Spetsmark with an eye on playing key minutes during the World Cup. Early returns point to that not panning out. Spetsmark came on late against the Reign as rookie Leah Pruitt got the start. Pruitt, the No. 5 overall pick in this year’s college draft, has shown some signs of being able to play at the NWSL level, and also missed the Royals match because she was sick. She figures to continue improving.
In Tacoma (where the Reign now play) the Williams and Pruitt — and then Spetsmark — combinations were mostly non-factors in the match. If Williams was going to cure her finishing yips, it was never going to be in this match, because she rarely got the ball in a position to try. When she did get it, the Reign defense often did a good job of pushing her wide.
“Credit to them, they had a good game plan,” Riley said. “They suffocated us a little bit and stopped us from playing out.”
In the back, Jaelene Hinkle has not found the superb form that made her the league’s best outside back in 2018. Her assist to Abby Erceg for the Courage goal was an example of how deadly her service from the flank can be, but that it has been more of an exception this season. A few minutes after that sequence, the Courage ran the same play off another corner kick and Hinkle’s cross not only failed to find a teammate — it crashed into the side of the net, ending the play.
But the most alarming element of the Courage’s defending has been in goal. To put it bluntly, Katelyn Rowland has not been good in her three matches since returning from injury. One goal in each match can be directly attributed to a mistake from Rowland. Against the Chicago Red Stars, she allowed Sam Kerr’s shot to sneak under her midsection and in. Was it rust? Maybe. A week later, she stood staring at an Amy Rodriguez shot, believing it was going wide only to see it go in. In the most recent match, the Reign scored the backbreaking goal when Rowland came off her line and out of her 18 to attempt a play on a ball that looked to be an easy clear for Erceg. They collided, and Shea Groom put it in an open net.
The first goal will be replayed as a great header by Bethany Balcer, but it was only allowed to happen because Rowland came out for another ball she couldn’t get, and the Reign kept the play alive, scoring on the recycle.
“I think she’s going through a tough stretch,” Riley said. “She was the first to put her hand up after the game. Two basic errors for a goalkeeper.
“One thing about Katelyn is her decision-making is really good. She’s not the best shot-blocker in the league, but she’s a great decision-maker. She’s got great feet. She’s great in the air on set pieces. The decision-making and the aerial thing didn’t really go well tonight.”
Rowland missed the first part of the season with a right shoulder injury. She came back just as Steph Labbe split town to go into camp with Canada. As Riley pointed out, most of Rowland’s mistakes have been tactical as opposed to physical. But a player either nursing an injury or hesitant about aggravating one can often be prone to atypical errors of the mind.
“I believe in Katelyn,” Riley said. “She’s been great the last couple years.”
Riley later said that all players have bad games before adding: “I’ve had many bad games as a coach, too. Today being one of them. We’ll have to get over it.”
Next up is a visit to Orlando to face the Pride, a team that can be viewed as something of a slump-buster. The Courage drubbed the Pride 5-0 in North Carolina last month, but that result belies the opening half hour, when the Pride challenged every ball and had the Courage on alert. Both teams will have much different personnel this time around. That includes Erceg being gone again to the World Cup, leaving yet another gap in Riley’s preferred lineup.
It is far from panic time in North Carolina. The top seven teams are separated by only four points. Anyone who wins two in a row will be in a forward position. The Courage were also never going to duplicate their remarkable 2018, even if the entire roster had been intact all season. Those types of runs just don’t happen very often, and it’s why they are so special.
The last time this team went this long without winning a match was 2016, when they still resided in Western New York. The Flash went into the last game of the regular season having not won in their last seven. They pasted the Boston Breakers to assure a playoff spot and then won the NWSL Championship. But for the first time since, there is some legitimate adversity within the group.
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— Vero Boquete has been the best Utah Royals player this season, making it extra tough to see her limping off near the end of the first half on Saturday night. Her absence was noted in the second half.
— You could see on Makenzy Doniak’s face what it meant to her to get her first goal since ACL surgery during 2018 preseason. Doniak did not score in 2017 and so her last goal was for the Western New York Flash in their epic 2016 semifinal win over the Thorns. While she recovered last summer, her rights were traded to Utah for Heather O’Reilly.
— Wouldn’t it be something if the NAIA player, Bethany Balcer, winds up as Rookie of the Year. Check out her goal from Monday. Great finish yes, but she’s the one who kept the play alive by getting her head on the initial service into the box.
— Shea Groom’s first goal with the Reign was not likely how she envisioned it, but after so many forays into the box that amounted to nothing last season at Sky Blue, she’ll surely take one that was the product of defensive miscommunication and an open net.
— You have to wonder if we were all expecting too much from the shorthanded Courage this season due to their winning the International Champions Cup last season under similar conditions. It just goes to show how much different the one-off is to the-week-over-week slog.
— The goals the Orlando Pride give away could be charitable tax write-offs. Last weekend aloe they committed a foul in the box after their central defenders couldn’t get a free clearance out of danger, and then went down 2-0 when the Royals caught them napping on a quick restart from midfield. When you’re seven games in and the only goals you have scored are from center backs, conceding soft ones is just icing on the spoiled cake.
— Sky Blue are 1-22-8 under Denise Reddy. Somehow it feels like that stat does not get discussed enough.
— The World Cup will be over in less than six weeks. And yet the NWSL still has no communications director. Presumably the summer tournament will shine a bit of much-needed light on the league. Are they prepared for this?
— Paul Riley on playing at Cheney Stadium as opposed to Memorial Stadium, where the Reign lived from 2014-2018: “I would much rather play here. The locker rooms are much better. I just like the atmosphere better, to be honest with you. I don’t know what it’s like for the fans, but seeing the game and watching in a baseball field is pretty tricky. The grass is good. They’ve done a good job. I thought the field was really good. We thought it would be a lot worse, having seen it on the TV, but I don’t think it played into the game at all. It’s smaller than we’re used to, but we’ve been on a lot smaller baseball fields. We played Seattle a couple years ago [as the Western New York Flash]. Do you remember that? The postage stamp? It was fine. It’s a good place. It’s definitely better than what they left, no question.”
— More Riley on Katelyn Rowland: “I think the one thing I don’t want is her feeling sorry for herself. That’s the most important thing, is for her to put it in the rear-view mirror. She’s a class goalkeeper, one of the best in the league for me. I would never get my kids to be goalkeeper in a million years. She’ll be fine.”
— I’m a little late, but I’m on the Aubrey Bledsoe bandwagon.
— Raise your hand if you had this weekend’s Royals-Spirit match as a top-of-the-table clash.
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