The team that lifted the NWSL Championship in 2016, the Western New York Flash, is no more. That group of players is mostly intact, however, and that means big expectations for the fledgling North Carolina Courage. Can a few newcomers plug the holes on a team with a championship-worthy core of returners and lead the Courage to the 2017 playoffs?
Super Sweet 2016
Whatever you want to say about 2016 as a year in general, you can’t deny it turned out well for the Flash, who kicked the year off by upsetting the reigning NWSL champs FC Kansas City and ended it winning the whole thing themselves. Their play saw some ups and downs between then—they lost three of their first four games and were involved in an embarrassing fiasco when they defeated the Seattle Reign on a 100x58 baseball field.
The Flash cut it close down the stretch as well, taking just eight points from their final eight games, and eked into the postseason in fourth place. But the team kicked it up a notch in the playoffs, outlasting Portland in an instant classic, and coming back from the dead to tie Washington in the last minute of regular time in the final, which they won on penalty kicks.
The biggest offseason change was the club itself. The WNY Flash were sold, relocated to Cary, N.C., and christened the North Carolina Courage, with head coach Paul Riley in tow. It was a solid move for a club that, for the exciting product they put on the field, lagged in attendance, and should do better in one of the US’ biggest women’s soccer hotbeds.
The Courage made two significant trades in the offseason. One sent center-back Alanna Kennedy to the Orlando Pride in exchange for defensive midfielder Samantha Witteman, and the other sent reserve goalkeeper Britt Eckerstrom to Portland for two 4th round picks in the 2018 college draft.
Two of the players the Courage selected in the 2017 NWSL draft made it on their final roster. Ashley Hatch, a striker from BYU, and Darian Jenkins, an All-American at UCLA, are both fast, tenacious players that should fit into the Courage’s all-out attacking style. Hatch, already capped for the full USWNT, will be expected to contribute from day one, while Jenkins is on the 45-day Disabled List as she recovers from a broken fibula.
Three international players joined the Courage. Two Brazilians, Rosana and Debinha, will contribute to the Courage’s attack and Yuri Kawamura, a Japanese defender, gives the Courage much-needed depth on defense.
If there’s one thing the Courage don’t lack, it’s attacking talent. 2016 MVP and Golden Boot winner Lynn Williams and active NWSL leading goalscorer Jessica McDonald are even better together than they are individually, and with both seeing time with the full national team in the past months, only stand to improve coming into the 2017 season. Makenzy Doniak returns after a strong rookie season, as does Kristen Hamilton and Taylor Smith, whose play off the bench last year earned her a call-up to a USWNT training camp.
The midfield is led by a rising star for the USWNT, Samantha Mewis. She has a strong supporting cast around her, including McCall Zerboni and Samantha Witteman.
Word of Caution
If there’s cause for pause, it comes from two factors: the Courage’s defense, and the 2016 rivalry schedule. Last year the Courage won by outscoring their opponents, not necessarily by limiting their attack. With all her heroics in the final, it’s easy to forget that goalkeeper Sabrina D’Angelo was far from perfect in the regular season, and was prone to the kinds of mistakes young goalkeepers tend to make. Furthermore, losing Kennedy means that Abby Erceg may get pulled into the backline, a position she is familiar with if not necessarily best suited for. The addition of Kawamura adds security, but it’s never a guarantee that international players will fit in well with the NWSL style and tempo.
Secondly, the Courage need to prove they can last a 24 game season. They benefitted greatly from last year’s scheduling, which had them play the bottom-of-the-table Boston Breakers four times. Excluding their Boston match-ups, the Flash only won six games all season, one of which was the Seattle field debacle, and they were winless in their last eight. With a longer season and the playoff race looking to be even closer than last year, the Courage are by no means guaranteed a spot in the postseason.
The Courage are playoff-capable, without a doubt. Williams and McDonald are a dream combination and neither show signs of slowing, Samantha Mewis looks poised to have a breakout year, and their international or drafted signees fit the team’s strengths. It all points toward the Courage building on their success last year, putting together a complete regular season performance and finding themselves back in the postseason.
Record Prediction (win-loss-tie): (13-4-7)
Overall Placement: 2nd