Opponent: Chicago Red Stars (2-2-1)
When: Sunday, May 21 @ 4:00pm
Where: Sahlen Stadium, Cary NC
The North Carolina Courage return home this Sunday after two straight road games. The Courage suffered their first loss of the season in Orlando last Sunday, falling 3-1 to the Pride but maintaining their significant advantage over the rest of the league. The Chicago Red Stars are mired in the middle of the table with 7 points after scoring an 89th minute equalizer against the Boston Breakers last weekend. Christen Press will look to add to her first goal of the season, while the Courage will try to bounce back from an unfortunate loss. A victory this weekend will have to come without center back Abby Erceg, who was ejected from the game in Orlando after drawing two yellows. Hopefully Jaelene Hinkle will be able to return to the team after missing two weeks with an injury, and Abby Dahlkemper will need to play a better game as the team’s lone center back. Erceg missed the first game of the season due to injury when the Courage beat the Washington Spirit in Maryland.
With Erceg out, the starting duties at outside back will fall to either Sam Witten or Taylor Smith. Both of those players have earned starts this season due to injury, with Witteman starting in week 1 when Erceg was it for injury. If she gets the start this weekend she will need to improve upon the disastrous performance from last weekend in Orlando, but the team has proven it can win with her on the field. Assuming that Hinkle can play this weekend, the Courage will be returning an excellent player who has earned multiple caps with the USWNT and has a knack for transitioning quickly between offense and defense.
The Red Stars have been disappointing so far this season, earning just two wins in five games. Despite returning most of their starting eleven from last season, the chemistry and urgency just hasn’t been there for the team that finished 3rd in the standings in 2016. The offense has been uninspired without finishing their finishing touch. Christen Press had been especially disappointing, bitching just one goal in five games after averaging better than one goal every two games during her NWSL career. The midfield, anchored by DiBernardo, Gilliland, and Colaprico, hasn’t been able to provide good enough looks and the forward have struggled to finish when they are there. Despite the abundance of technical talent, the Red Stars have been lacking a sense of sustained urgency to win.
Depending on the outcome of Seattle’s game this weekend, the Courage have an opportunity to finish this week with a three game lead over the next closest team in the standing if they can warm wins during both their Sunday and Wednesday home games. The Red Stars look to break out of the pack by being the first team to beat the Courage at home in the short history of the franchise. After this weekend the Courage face Sky Blue at home on Wednesday before traveling to Chicago for a rematch against the Red Stars. This gives the Red Stars a huge advantage the following weekend, so it will be even more important to get the win this Sunday.
Last weekend I embarrassed myself by underestimating the difficulty of playing in Orlando. This week I’ll be more conservative and predict a 2-1 Courage win. Playing at home is a huge advantage, and the Courage know how to generate ample scoring opportunities. The loss of Erceg will make things more difficult, but I believe this team can step up and fill her shoes. The Courage do need to score first, as they panicked and allowed a second goal immediately after the first last weekend. If they can play with the same intensity that they did in response to surrendering those two goals this Sunday should be a happy day for Courage fans.