The Courage hit the road tonight as they play a mid-week replacement for the game that was postponed in Kansas City due to inclement weather. The postponement came at a fortuitous time for the Courage, as their starting lineup for the previous game against FCKC back in July was a bit wonky, with Hatch starting as a midfield winger, and the team just didn’t look good in the few minutes of the game that were played. The biggest issue for the Courage in this game will be fatigue with Mewis, Dahlkepmper and Smith all accruing minutes in the Tournament of Nations and last weekend against Seattle. The Courage will hope to win the game and earn 3 points to secure their currently tenuous lead atop the NWSL standings as they face the worst team in the NWSL standings.
Managing Player Fatigue
The lineup against Seattle showed some signs of Paul Riley’s desire to strategically limit minutes without jeopardizing the ability to earn victories. For Sam Mewis, Abby Dahlkemper and Taylor Smith, tonight’s game will be their fifth match in two weeks, with a sixth match coming in Seattle on Sunday. Odds are that those three workhorse players will all start and play the full 90 minutes tonight, although it is within the realm of possibility that Sam Witteman will start in place of Taylor Smith. Paul Riley chose not to start Jess McDonald and Debinha last weekend, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see those two ladies replace Kris Hamilton and Ashley Hatch in the lineup today. Both of those players worked especially hard against Seattle last Saturday and deserve a break if it can be afforded. While I would love to see Nora Holstad Berge get the start in a 3-back system, I don’t think she has been with the team long enough to earn a start, although Denise O’Sullivan might come in as a sub towards the end of tonight’s game. She, having been in the NWSL for the past two seasons, knows the league better and it probably a bit more match-fit. The Courage are probably the best conditioned team in the league, but it’s hard not to think back to the disastrous losses to Chicago the last time we played a midweek game.
The Best Defense in the League
If the Courage can manage a clean sheet tonight, they will officially be the best defense in terms of scoring in the league. They have currently allowed 13 goals in 15 matches while the Thorns have allowed 14 goals in 16 matches (the only other team with less than a 1 goal-per-game-average is Chicago, with 15 goals allowed in 16 matches). The Blues have shown some strong offensive performances lately, a stark contrast to their offensive ineptitude at the beginning of the season, but as long as they Courage can play their game they should be able to hold off the pressure from FCKC. Katelyn Rowland has allowed the fewest goals of any keeper in the NWSL, with just 3 goals hitting the back of the net in her 8 starts, but the credit can’t be just to her. The defense has stepped up in a major way since losing Yuri Kawamura to an ACL tear, and while it has limited the offensive abilities of Smith and Hinkle, the trade off has been exceptional defensive play.
While the Courage have the best defensive unit, FCKC has one of the best defenders in the world in Becky Sauerbrunn. Saurbrunn and Dahlkemper spent most of the Tournament of Nations playing side-by-side on the USWNT starting line that held Australia to one goal, even though the offense couldn’t get the job done and the US still lost that game. Unfortunately for Sauerbrunn, her fellow defenders and midfielders haven’t held up their end of the bargain, and FCKC sits with a -8 goal differential on the season. If the Courage can put the right personnel on the field tonight, they should be able to replicate the 2-0 victory from June when these two teams last met.
No Draws, No Problem
The Courage are the only team in the NWSL that has not registered a draw this season, and it’s definitely working for them. There are 3 teams in the NWSL – the Chicago Red Stars, Portland Thorns, and Seattle Reign – that have fewer losses than the Courage, but still find themselves sitting lower in the standings. The reason those teams sit lower is that they tend to have a disproportionate number of ties. While salvaging a point when you are down is great, giving up two points when you are leading is a standings disaster, especially when the top 3 teams in the league are currently separated by just two points. Take a look at this small piece of the league standings:
|North Carolina Courage||10||5||0||30||-1|
|Chicago Red Stars||8||3||5||29||-4|
The “points lost” category shows how well teams have held on to their wins or draws after the first goal has been scored. There was one game this season, against Chicago, where the Courage went down a goal, came back to tie the game, but then lost. Thus, they forfeit one point in that game, because they should have earned a tie. Portland has never had this occur, which is enormously impressive, but look at Chicago and Seattle. Twice this season, Chicago has scored first but then allowed the other team to catch up, and it has happened an astounding 5 times to Seattle. In 5 separate games they held the lead before giving up goals to end in a tie. While the Thorns have netted positive points from their ties, both Chicago and Seattle have lost significant points from theirs.