The Courage Clinch a Home Playoff Berth
It was a beautiful, even chilly, night in North Carolina as the Courage faced off against the Houston Dash for the first time this season and in the club’s history. The atmosphere and weather were reminiscent of the first few games that the Courage played at Sahlen’s Stadium back in April, at a time when people didn’t know what to make of the upstart 2016 champions who moved about 1,000 miles away from their former home in upstate New York. The last 6 months have seen this team solidify into one of the most dominant defensive teams in NWSL history; an eventuality that was completely unexpected after their questionable defensive play nearly cost them a chance to make the playoffs in 2016. The rise of Abby Dahlkemper and Taylor Smith, both of whom are becoming mainstays on the USWNT, as well as the continued excellence of Abby Erceg and Jae Hinkle has allowed Paul Riley to make some extremely offensive-minded moves at the top. Indeed, against the Dash on Saturday night the Courage started 4 players who are listed as forwards in the team’s roster: Lynn Williams, Jess McDonald, Ashley Hatch, and Kris Hamilton.
The victory this weekend followed an extremely familiar format for Courage fans. The team works hard and exhausts their opponent while applying relentless pressure both offensively and defensively with all 10 field players. Nobody on the Courage side takes a moment to rest between plays, and that is something that few NWSL teams are prepared for either mentally or physically. Unfortunately, like is their custom lately, the Courage couldn’t find a way to wrack up multiple goals despite generating an abundance of shots. The Courage managed 22 shots, but only 6 of them were on target. This has rarely been a problem throughout the season, but it’s easy to think back to their 3 one-goal losses and remember a fair number of chances that just weren’t finished the way you want them to be. Of course, the Dash are hardly a barnburner of an offensive team, especially now that Carli Lloyd is injured, and the Courage defense only allowed one or two truly dangerous opportunities. The first-half goal by Kris Hamilton was a Courage-esque goal, where the ball was poked in while it rolled around in the box after a long throw by Jess McDonald, and while there were plenty of chances after that point, the Courage just couldn’t put a second goal past Dash keeper Jane Campbell. Kate Rowland, who is rarely tested and made a few mistakes last weekend against Chicago, played an excellent game controlling the defense, making one fantastic save, and beating Dash players to aerial passes with ease. She did make one little mistake when she came out for a ball and was beaten but the Dash player missed her header and the ball slid through Rowland’s hands for a corner. Otherwise her night was flawless.
The Playoff Picture Comes into Focus
This weekend saw a slew of playoff possibilities abruptly end as FC Kansas City, Houston Dash and Sky Blue FC all ruined their opportunity to make the playoffs by failing to earn a win. On the opposite side, the Courage and Thorns both secured home playoff games as the #1 and #2 seeds, although the exact order of the seeding is still able to change. The Courage currently hold a 2 point advantage in the standings with 3 games left while the Thorns have 2 games remaining. The extra game for the Courage comes from the yet-to-be-rescheduled game in Houston that was postponed due to Hurricane Harvey.
The final two playoff spots are up for grabs between just 3 teams: the Chicago Red Stars, Orlando Pride and Seattle Reign. The Red Stars and Pride are currently 5 points ahead of Seattle in the standings, which means that Seattle will need to win both of their matches while hoping that the Red Stars or Pride lose both of their matches. The Red Stars are the most likely team to lose both of their matches as they must play @ Houston and @ Portland to close out the season, but the odds are still extremely likely that they playoff schedule will end up as follows:
North Carolina Courage vs Chicago Red Stars
Portland Thorns vs Orlando Pride