Victorious in Texas
On Wednesday the Courage won their record-tying 16th game of the season in their 4th midweek game of the year. The postponed game from back when Hurricane Harvey had just made landfall in the Houston area was replayed about 2 hours outside of Houston proper in Edinburgh, Texas, and marked one of the best team performances for the Courage this season. The 4-0 win marked both the greatest score differential, the most goals scored, and the record-setting 12th clean sheet of the season, and it came with a cast of characters rarely seen in the starting lineups of late.
With the game running midweek and Paul Riley realizing the relative unimportance of an away game when you’ve locked down a playoff spot, the Courage trotted out a previously unseen starting lineup. Mainstays Taylor Smith, Jae Hinkle, Kate Rowland, Kris Hamilton and Denise O’Sullivan were all riding the pine as they rested up for the playoffs and were replaced by Merideth Speck, Sam Witteman, Sabrina D’Angelo, Mak Doniak and Debhina respectively. It is a mark of the depth and equity that the Courage employ that this cast could come together and roll 4 goals on any other team in the league, let alone one that has a USWNT keeper on the roster. The changes were good, though, and gave some players a chance to prove themselves as we approach a potential expansion.
The players who never come out, well, never came out. Mewis, Zerboni, Williams and Erceg all played the whole game, but Dahlkemper’s full game made it her 62nd consecutive full game of her career. Those 5 players mark the only truly consistent core on the team, but that shouldn’t detract from the value of the other 6 players that take the field with them. Thus, as the cast of extremely talented and well-developed players around them has been roiling all season, that group of players has been able to successfully integrate and utilize any player that has been thrown into the lineup.
The goals were scored one by Lynn Williams, Ashley Hatch, Debhina and Sam Mewis in no particular order, and the game set us up for a great showdown later today, even if it did take away the purpose for the Courage.
The Final Regular Season Home Game
It started when diminutive Debhina jumped up and headed the first home goal in the history of the NC Courage to beat the Thorns and it ends with Alex Morgan and Marta coming to Cary. At 7:30 tonight the Courage will host the Orlando Pride for the second time this season, with both teams apparently headed for a repeat competition in just 8 days. The Courage and Pride are probably the two most different teams in the NWSL, especially in the category of perception. The Pride are the team of superstars, with Morgan and Marta drawing the largest crowds of the season at just about every stadium they visit. The team scores goals aplenty and is traditionally overrated because everyone wants them to succeed and can understand how it would happen. The Courage are the polar opposite.
Before this season and the Tournament of Nations the Courage was a bunch of upstart nobodies that took the season by storm and squeaked their way into the playoffs before beating the powerful Thorns and Spirit to win the championship. Even after the championship and the addition of a bunch of new talent the team was not expected to take over the league, and most pundits had the Courage ranked in the 3rd or 4th spot in their preseason rankings, with the Thorns and Red Stars reliably above the Courage. Even now, having watched every game this season, I’m never quite sure how we win all these games. The defense is excellent, but we also give up a lot of breakaway opportunities when we get caught out of position. The offense is potent, but extremely inefficient. We have so many shots, but they rarely hit the target. The Courage are rocking the worst passing accuracy rating in the league, but somehow all of this has turned into the winningest season in NWSL history and the first time that a team has prevented the opposing team from scoring in twelve games. Maybe the lack of superstardom is the secret.
Today’s game, while being an excellent matchup, is unlikely to have any impact on the playoff picture. The Orlando Pride have not been able to win either of their last two games, and that leaves them solidly in 4th place. The Courage, alternately, have locked up the Supporters’ Shield and the #1 seed in the playoffs. If the Red Stars win in Portland at 4:00 today then the Red Stars will play again in Portland in the playoff game next week. Alternately, if the Red Stars lose or tie then our game against Orlando will decide the final match. In this instance, if Orlando wins they go to Portland for the playoffs, but if they lose or tie then they come right back to North Carolina.
It’s hard to know exactly what to expect from the game. The Courage tend to play best out of the heat, so the cool evening air should facilitate our high press system. Odds are that we will need to score 2-3 goals if we want to win, so getting a few early goals against Ashlynn Harris should be the primary objective. On the defensive end, the Pride can quickly rack up a litany of goals. If Erceg and Dahlkemper aren’t on the same page and holding a stiff line against Alex Morgan then it will be a tough day for Rowland. Catching the Pride forwards offside early and often will be extremely important in keeping the opposing team out of rhythm. It could be an absolutely great game for the home or away team depending on how the refs call the game. Indeed, the Courage lost their first game of the season against this Orlando team when Abby Erceg was awarded two yellow cards in the first 55 minutes of the game which left the team with just 10 players in Orlando. If that were to happen again it would be an epic disaster, as I’m not sure whether or not Erceg would serve her suspension on the first week of the playoffs or the first game of the following season.
Either way, this has been an amazing regular season, and I’m looking forward to spending the next two weekends in North Carolina.