In January of 2017, the Western New York Flash, the 2016 NWSL Champions, were sold to a North Carolina owner, Stephen Malik. The franchise relocated to Cary, NC and officially became the North Carolina Courage. Head coach Paul Riley and the majority of the Flash's players from that championship-winning team remained with the new club, starting a new era with a different ownership, city, and fanbase.
Such a change could have been one focused on rebuilding as a new franchise and proving that the championship season in its former city was well-earned, and the Courage, as soon as the new 2017 season began, showed that a 2016 championship season was not a fluke. What Paul Riley had built in 2016 in Western New York only continued in North Carolina. The Courage spent the majority of the season as the top team in the NWSL, employing a high press and possession-style of play.
North Carolina enjoyed a five-game winning streak at the start of the season, and they repeated the same streak in the month of August. Without a doubt, the Courage was the best team in the NWSL all season, finishing with a 16-7-1 record, first in the NWSL, becoming the first team to clinch a playoff spot with a month left in the season as well as gaining home-field advantage. On September 27th, the Courage clinched the NWSL Shield, the award for the best regular season record. They also tied the 2014 Seattle Reign by winning 16 regular season games.
With all the success in the season, the Courage hosted a home semifinal game in Cary in front of the 10,017 fans. In that game, North Carolina defeated the Chicago Red Stars, a team they were 0-3 in 2017, on an 89th-minute goal to face the Portland Thorns in the championship game. The Courage eventually fell to the Portland in the NWSL Championship in a physical affair, but what Riley and the Courage accomplished in 2017 will go down as one of the best seasons for a team in the league's history. The success also reflected in the recognition of individuals within the team. Riley won Coach of the Year, Ashley Hatch was voted Rookie of the Year, and Abby Dahlkemper was named Defender of the Year.
Biggest Win of the Year
With 16 wins in the regular season and holding the top spot for 20 out of 22 weeks, the Courage's biggest win came in the postseason, defeating a team that handed them three losses in their previous meetings. Coming into the semifinal matchup against the Chicago, the Red Stars were the only team who won regular season series against the Courage with 3-1, 3-2, and 2-1 victories, respectively.
The Red Stars did not get the best of the Courage in the semifinal, though. North Carolina dominated both halves, keeping possession and pressuring the Chicago defense. Still, the Red Stars refused to let the Courage have a leading goal. With regulation nearly coming to an end, the Courage earned a corner kick, which was received by forward Jessica McDonald with a header on the ball. As the ball made it outside the box, midfielder Denise O’Sullivan took a shot, going past Chicago's cluster of players into the goal for the coveted game-winner to allow the Courage to advance the championship game.
Biggest Defeat of the Year
No other major defeat in 2017 hurt the Courage more than reaching the NWSL Championship and falling 1-0 in the 50th minute to the Portland Thorns, losing after a highly impressive, record-setting season. Allowing the first goal left the Courage with 40 minutes to attempt an equalizer and not allow the Thorns to extend their lead. They succeeded in the former, but failed in the latter.
In a game that was marred by its physicality and dirty tackles from the Thorns as well as the Courage, North Carolina's Taylor Smith left in the 12th minute in pain to an AC joint separation to her right arm after a challenge by Tobin Heath within minutes after kickoff. The physical battle continued for the remainder of the first half. Kristen Hamilton was also subbed out in the 39th minute because of an injury. Losing two starters in the first half left the Courage adjusting for the remainder of the game and took them out of their game plan. And though they came close to equalizing with 16 shots, there was not enough time in the clock to do so, nor enough shots on target (only 5) to spoil Portland's party.
In a team where everyone contributed significantly for such a successful season, defender Abby Dahlkemper's performance for 2017 stands out the most. Dahlkemper never missed a game and played every minute for the Courage, anchoring its defense, even as she split time with the U.S. Women's National Team.
She helped the Courage from her center back position to twelve shutouts as the North Carolina defense only conceded twenty-two goals this year. Dahlkemper was also third on the Courage in touches on the season and was tied for first in clearances with 88.
On the offensive side, Dahlkemper took 116 corner kicks in the regular season. Dahlkemper tallied two assists on the season, both from set pieces to Sam Mewis. Dahlkemper's contributions helped the Courage clinch a playoff spot and the NWSL Shield.
Player with an Off Year
Sabrina D'Angelo was the 2016 NWSL Championship's Most Valuable Player. The Canadian international goalkeeper saved three penalty kicks in the championship game to lead the Flash to a 3-2 victory over the Washington Spirit. As the 2017 season began, she was the Courage's starting keeper, but as the season progressed, she lost her starting spot to Katelyn Rowland, who finished the year as the number two goalkeeper in the league behind Goalkeeper of the Year Adrianna Franch.
D'Angelo only started eight games, conceding 10 times, making 19 saves, and recording 4 clean sheets with a save percentage of 66%. In comparison, Rowland was the obvious choice each week for Riley. In her 16 appearances, Rowland conceded 12 goals with 39 saves and recorded eight clean sheets. Rowland's save percentage was 76%.
Improvements for 2018
What does a team like the Courage, who had the record-breaking season they did, have to do to improve for 2018? As good as they were, they still could not always finish in the final third. For an offense with a high press, their shot conversion and shot accuracy ranked 8th. Out of the 308 shots the Courage offense took, only 132 were on target, with an accuracy percentage of 42.9%.
Lynn Williams, who won the Golden Boot Award and was the league's Most Valuable Player in 2016, often times struggled to finish as well. Even with her speed, her technical ability is something to improve for 2018, for only 36 out of her 105 total shots were on target.
The North Carolina Courage, should they keep the same core of players from 2017, barring any trades or injuries, will, nevertheless, again be a contender in 2018, especially after the way their 2017 ended with disappointment in Orlando on October 14 which will only serve as motivation.
All stats courtesy of OptaJack, the NWSL's official stat tracker.