The inaugural season for the North Carolina Courage has been amazing so far. There were a lot of people who thought that the move would upset the delicate balance that had allowed the Western New York Flash to win the NWSL Championship in 2016, and even more pundits simply thought that the success had been a fluke. Certainly a bunch of relative nobodies couldn’t keep pace with the star-studded rosters of Portland, Chicago and Orlando, and weren’t most of the Flash’s wins during the Olympic break anyways?
I’ll admit, I had my doubts about the long-term success of the team, especially considering that the Flash had a lackluster defensive performance compared to the other playoff contending teams in 2016. Add to that the fact that the Flash only made the postseason as the 4th seed by beating the league-worst Boston Breakers in the final game of the season after a 7-game winless streak, and you don’t have a particularly inspiring regular season to build upon. Fortunately for all the faithful fans in North Carolina and beyond (I live in the mountains of Virginia and make the 3.5 hour drive for each home game), the Courage have been one of the best prepared and best run teams in the NWSL this season. Management has made a consistent and concerted effort to improve the defense, and the player development system for the Courage has been second to none. Jess McDonald, one of the greatest players in NWSL history, did an interview before the season where she gushed about the move to North Carolina, and when I spoke to her at the season ticket holders meet-and-greet event she said how happy she was to be with the new ownership in NC. That grit, determination and hard work has shown up on the field with the Courage boasting the best scoring defense in the league and a place atop the standings despite holding a game in hand over the rest of the league.
Thus, it should come as no surprise that, while the rest of the league was relaxing during the FIFA break, the Courage were out finding new international players to help improve their team. In the NWSL each team is allowed 4 international players, with the rest of the team being comprised of either players from the USA or players on the Canadian national team. The Courage added three new internationals during the offseason in Debinha (Brazil), Rosana (Brazil) and Yuri Kawamura (Japan) to go with Abby Erceg (New Zealand), but Rosana never really panned out and was released while Yuri tore her ACL after an amazing start to the season. This left the Courage with two open slots to fill, and while the team continued to win they desperately missed the flexibility the Kawamura provided on the back line. Bring on Nora Holstad Berge.
Nora Holstad Berge
Nora Holstad Berge is a veteran player from Norway who has played club soccer all over Europe. While her most recent play has been with Bayern Munich’s squad in the Frauen Bundisliga (2014-2017) where she won the championship with that team in 2015 and 2016, she has also played in Norway and Sweden. She has accrued 69 career appearances (CAPs) with the senior Norwegian Women’s National Team after playing with the U-17, U-19, U-21, and U-23 teams for her country, and she most recently played all 270 minutes of Norway’s losing efforts in the 2017 Women’s Euro. She is a world class central defender, and I’m sure the front office is hoping that she can replace Yuri Kawamura’s hole in the 3-back defensive scheme.
The Courage started off the season with an absolutely lethal 3-back lineup with Erceg, Dahlkemper and Kawamura allowing the rest of the team to push freely in the midfield, but once Kawamura went down Taylor Smith and Jaelene Hinkle had to play like more traditional outside backs. The dream is that Holstad Berge can pair with Erceg and Dahlkemper to allow Smith and Hinkle to have more freedom on the flanks, where the Courage can do what they do best by pushing the ball towards the end line and sending crosses through the box to Williams, McDonald and Hatch. Even when the defense manages to clear the ball, we frequently end up with corner kicks which allows for even more offensive pressure. To prove the point, in the 7 games where Yuri wasn’t injured the Courage averaged 9 corner kicks but they have averaged just 5.4 in the 7 games since her injury. If we can get those offensive opportunities back the scoring chances will increase, so hopefully Nora can provide that presence on the back line.
Everything from her past suggests that she is an amazing defender with great ball skills and intelligence, and the she should be able to easily transition into that role. Getting a player of her quality to come to the NWSL after playing in the Bundisliga is an amazing coup for the team, especially given the relatively low salary potential in this league, and we want to welcome Nora to the Courage and wish her all the best in her time here.
With a name like that it’s not hard to tell what part of the world our newest midfielder hails from. Denise started playing for the senior Irish Women’s National Team at the ripe old age of 17 and has since earned at least 51 CAPs. While the Irish team might not be the best in the world, any player who can boast about being one of their country’s 20 best soccer players at the age of 17 is certainly impressive. Denise started her club career in Ireland before moving to Scotland and then finally to the USA where she played for the Houston Dash. During her time with Houston she made 29 appearances and scored 2 goals, but interim head coach Omar Morales wasn’t giving her minutes and eventually released her this season.
Unlike Nora above, it was much easier for me to find footage of O’Sullivan playing since the NWSL does such a great job of making their content accessible. I’d never really focused on her when I watched Dash games earlier in the season, so I went back and watched a few games with Denise in mind. The positives of her game are certainly her positioning on the field and her short passes, which tend to be crisp and on target. The negative is that the Courage play a very high intensity press throughout the field, and I’m not sure whether she has that tenacity – at least I didn’t see it as much as I’d like. Now the caveat there is that if Houston doesn’t press as much, no one player could do it on their own, the whole team has to press.
Presumably O’Sullivan would be put into a outside-mid position in place of Doniak in the 4-back system that we are currently running, and she should be able to compete with Doniak for that starting position. That isn’t really how Houston was using her, where she was more of an attacking central midfielder, but with how often Taylor Smith gets up the field she would be expected to pinch in and provide short outlet passes and distribute into the offense. I didn’t see much of her driving end line and crossing, either, but that wasn’t something any of the Dash players really did. It should also be noted that the Dash were generally miserable while Denise was getting minutes, so it isn’t the best analysis from that perspective. If Holstad gets the start and we switch into a 3-back system, I’m not sure I see O’Sullivan making the start, but instead coming in as a substitute for Debinha. In the 3-back we would have 3 defenders (Erceg, Dahlkemper, and Holstad Berge) and 2 forwards (some combination of Hatch, Williams, McDonald and Hamilton), with 2 outside midfielders (Smith and Hinkle) and 3 central midfielders (Mewis, Zerboni, and Debinha). An injury or rest day to any one of those midfielders would give O’Sullivan a chance to start, and she would almost certainly be a 60-75th minute substitute in most games without an injury. It is great to have a player who can come in and play basically anywhere in the midfield, which is certainly why Paul Riley brought her into the fold.