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The Lowdown: The Courage culture is fully vested

CARY, N.C. — During last Friday’s media day, ahead of the seventh National Women’s Soccer League Championship, Crystal Dunn all but admitted she was exhausted and ready for her long year to be over. It was a talking point that did not sit particularly well with her coach Paul Riley.

“I was a little disappointed to be honest with you,” Riley said in his post-match press conference on Sunday following the North Carolina Courage’s 4-0 shellacking of the Chicago Red Stars to retain their title. “There’s no clink in the armor, man. You don’t give anybody any crack.”

There were no cracks to be seen during Sunday’s championship match. At the culmination of one of the more tumultuous seasons even by the wiggly standards of the NWSL, the Courage made sure everyone knew one thing: They are still the best team around. In fact, when they’re hitting on all cylinders, no one else has much of a chance. Sunday’s final may have been contested between two teams, but it was really all about one. While no Red Stars starter this side of Julie Ertz can claim to have had even an average day, much of that can be attributed to the Courage.

“They attacked us with five and they kept five,” Red Stars head coach Rory Dames said after Sunday’s match. “It wasn’t like they overloaded us coming forward, they’re just really dynamic.”

The win, however, said as much about culture as it did about tactics or even personnel. In the wonky world of women’s professional soccer in the United States, previous leagues barely had enough time for clubs to develop sustained cultures. The WUSA had the Mia Hamm/Abby Wambach Washington Freedom that reached two finals, winning the second. Less than a month after that title, the league was gone. WPS had Marta’s travelling road show. Three teams in three seasons. And then the league was gone.

The early NWSL had Seattle Reign FC and FC Kansas City. They contested two consecutive finals in 2014 and 2015 and were legitimate rivals. But a combination of retirements, pregnancies, and injuries led to both teams missing the playoffs the next two seasons.

No, North Carolina’s dominance is not bad for the NWSL

Enter Paul Riley. After two disappointing seasons in Portland, Riley was named head coach of the Western New York Flash in February 2016. The team had a solid young nucleus but had missed the playoffs the two previous seasons and was in the midst of a player revolt over their dissatisfaction with Aaron Lines. Riley came in, stabilized the culture and harnessed the talent of what was an epic 2015 draft class. Eight months later, the team that called itself the Bad News Bears won the NWSL Championship.

“I’ve talked a lot about how many Cup-tie type games we’ve played the last few years,” he said Sunday. “I think it’s big for us. When we played in Western New York that first year when we never should have won but we did, I think that was the biggest thing for us what we learned for that game.”

Three years later, that culture is both the envy and the bane of NWSL rivals. The sale of the team and move to North Carolina in 2017 brought extra resources and a steely resolve. The 2015 draft class blossomed into stars. From the four first-round picks, Abby Dahlkemper and Sam Mewis played in the World Cup while Lynn Williams and Jaelene Hinkle have also been capped.

“Paul was probably the perfect guy to walk into that environment,” Dames said on the eve of the NWSL Championship. “They had a great draft and had a lot of hungry players that had a lot of ability that were wanting to be led. Paul thrives on that environment.”

Cheers from the Courage bench during the final. (Photo Copyright Lewis Gettier)

The 2015 draft is not the only example of the Courage and their unsung technical director Charlie Naimo improving through player acquisition. Kristen Hamilton was the last player taken in the 2014 draft and developed at just the right pace that she became a temporary starter during this World Cup. Taylor Smith wasn’t drafted at all but started the 2016 NWSL Championship for the then-Flash. Two years later, Smith and No. 2 overall pick (acquired in a trade for Becky Edwards, who was on a downward career arc) Ashley Hatch were packaged to acquire the rights to Crystal Dunn.

Dunn was considered the missing piece, if that is possible. In 2017 the Courage won the Shield but lost the NWSL Championship to the Thorns. Dunn’s arrival all but perfected Riley’s box midfield, the most recent iteration of which has Dunn and Debinha on top with Mewis and Denise O’Sullivan behind them.

In some ways, the culture preceded itself. Jess McDonald was set to retire after being traded to Western New York. She agreed to return only after hearing Riley had taken the job. Two years later, McDonald was MVP of the NWSL Championship. A year after that, she went to the World Cup.

But what makes the Courage so special, as Riley said in the tweet below, is that nobody is too big to do the small things. Heather O’Reilly used her time as a World Cup analyst to work with a personal trainer to fine-tune her fitness even though at the time she was a little-used bench player in her final season. It paid dividends after Merritt Mathias tore her ACL and O’Reilly stepped in to finish out the season at right back. O’Reilly started on the national team in the early 2000s and hardly needed the Courage culture to tell herself to go the extra mile in her farewell season. The underlying theme, though, is that the team brings in players that will enhance the culture and not detract from it.

“You’re either giving to the group or taking away from the group,” McCall Zerboni, who saw her role drastically reduced this season, said at media day.

During his post-match press conference, Riley spoke about what he calls chronic training. His belief is that teams that train hard, play hard. It is a philosophy that traces at least to his two years coaching the Philadelphia Independence in WPS. That squad often did double sessions well into the regular season and the players were encouraged to spend as much time at the training facility as possible. With a group far less talented than the Courage, the Independence reached the final in both years of their existence.

“This environment is very easy to transition into,” Dunn said when asked about the challenges of shuttling in and out with the national team this year. “Everyone knows we put in max effort so when you’re in this environment you’re all in. That’s what really makes it easy is that there is no 50-50. I’ve always given my all to this team. There are some days that I maybe only had 20 percent in the tank. But everyone always knew that I was giving everything that I had that day.”

It’s official: Paul Riley has established the NWSL’s first dynasty

Stephanie Labbe joined the Courage this season just to be part of the culture. The Canadian goalkeeper needed a team ahead of the World Cup and chose the Courage, even though it looked like she was destined to sit behind Katelyn Rowland.

“I came here because I wanted to be challenged and I knew nothing was guaranteed,” Labbe said after joining Karina LeBlanc (2013 Thorns) and Sabrina D’Angelo (2016 Flash) as Canadians who have been the winning goalkeepers in the NWSL Championship. “I knew that I was going to have to fight every single day and every single week for a spot.”

Labbe’s signing is another example of the culture taking care of itself. It was D’Angelo, in her exit interview with Riley over some Starbucks coffee, who recommended Labbe to the Courage. She had already recommended the Courage to Labbe. As it turned out, Rowland was injured in preseason, then benched. Labbe took the reins.

“It was the best decision I ever made,” Labbe said Sunday night.

Inside the construction of the Courage, perennial NWSL contenders

It is easy to watch the Courage demolish the Red Stars in the final — or watch the six goals they scored in Portland in a match that appeared to crush the souls of the Thorns — and see why they are so good. But you can also watch through a wider lens and see why teammates rave about Denise O’Sullivan — a player who couldn’t crack the game day roster for a non-playoff Houston Dash side in 2017. Or to see Lynn Williams and her dozen goals sprinting back at top speed to dispossess Sam Kerr from behind on Sunday.

Riley opened his post-match press conference by singling out that play by Williams. He later said that was the moment he knew in his gut that there was no way the Courage were going to lose.

One member of the Courage staff was asked in passing about impending expansion and what the team was planning to do. The response: “We’re going to get better.”

The rest of the league is on notice. And it’s everyone else’s move.

Free Kicks

— Good times in North Carolina for the final. The Chicago Local 134 group that made the trip was fantastic and there appeared to be fans of all nine teams in attendance. It occurred to me along the way that the fans of the league have single-handedly turned NWSL Championship week into a destination event of sorts. EQZ did its small part with another night-before event, as we did in Portland last year. If only the league would follow suit and do its part to give us the festival type atmosphere everyone wants.

— Here is the more broad quote from McCall Zerboni, discussing her positive outlook even in the face of what she called a tough year, on and off the field: “This group deserved my best foot forward every morning, every day. I would hope and like to think that no one ever saw me with a sour face on. It’s something I take pride in because that’s what gives the energy to the group. That mood within the group is what cultivates the environment and the culture and what goes for success. My role has been different in achieving wins this year, but the way that you conduct yourself no matter what the role is, you’re either giving to the group or taking away from the group.”

— Zerboni, O’Reilly, and Rowland joined Christine Sinclair as players to win four total club championships spanning all three leagues. Only O’Reilly and Sinclair played in all four finals. Not included is Zerboni’s WPS Elite title with the Flash in 2012.

— Casey Short picked a bad day to play her worst game of the season. But she was still the best defender in the NWSL in 2019, postseason awards be damned.

— Tierna Davidson told me she knew the moment her ankle went that she was not going to be playing on Sunday. There was no moment where she tried to talk herself into being okay. I’ll have more on this later in this week or early next.

— Vlatko Andonovski’s final moment as an NWSL head coach was being named Coach of the Year for the second time. Laura Harvey and Paul Riley have also won the award twice. The only one-time winner is Mark Parsons.

— Actually, is final moment too strong for Andonovski? I have a feeling that regardless of how his national team tenure goes, he will coach in the NWSL again.

— Of all the positive things said about Andonovski this week (many of which I agree with), these two stand out. Both are the start of short threads.

— No one is talking much about it and understandably so, but Reign FC need a head coach. They also have a bit of an aging roster and may not have Jess Fishlock until sometime after opening day. I did appreciate owner Bill Predmore saying that while Andonovski was great, the goal has to be to go find someone better.

— No update on Sky Blue FC’s venue situation.

— The attendance of 10,227 at the NWSL Championship was the most for any soccer games played at Sahlen’s Stadium, women or men.

— I was sad to hear about the death of Zhang Ouying. The former China and San Diego Spirit striker passed away last December but news only came my way this week. She had been diagnosed with lung cancer earlier last year. Zhang took and made a penalty during China’s loss to the United States in the 1999 World Cup final. It is believed she is the first player to play in any of the three leagues here to have died.

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