2018 NWSL team preview: North Carolina Courage
The Courage look to top their 2017 success by winning the championship in 2018.

The North Carolina Courage will open the 2018 National Women's Soccer League season at home in the first LifeTime Game of the Week with a rematch of the 2017 NWSL Championship Game at 3:30 pm on Saturday, March 24. The game in Cary, NC will pit the reigning NWSL Champion Portland Thorns FC against the reigning regular season champions.

The Courage managed to secure the best record in the NWSL in their inaugural season and won their semifinal playoff match against the Chicago Red Stars. After suffering injuries to midfielder Debinha in the semifinal and defender Taylor Smith and forward Kristen Hamilton in the final the team felt like the 1-0 championship loss amounted to hard luck. They will be looking to avenge that loss in the opening match of the season.

Strong from start to finish

The Courage came into existence early in 2017 when the Western New York Flash were sold and rebranded after the Flash won the 2016 NWSL Championship. The reigning champions moved to Cary, NC where they set up shop alongside North Carolina FC of the USL.

McCall Zerboni scored the first goal in Courage history in a 1-0 win over the Washington Spirit. | Photo: @NWSL
McCall Zerboni scored the first goal in Courage history in a 1-0 win over the Washington Spirit. | Photo: @NWSL

The team started off the 2017 season strong with a win in their debut game. The first goal for the Courage was scored by midfielder McCall Zerboni on the road against the Washington Spirit, and the 1-0 victory would become a theme throughout the season. The team would go on to win their first four matches of the season before suffering their first loss on the road at the Orlando Pride

The Courage built an identity for tough, high-press soccer and a stout defense that started with the forwards. The group played team defense and was able to stay consistently great despite head coach Paul Riley oscillating between goalkeepers Sabrina D'Angelo and Katelyn Rowland.

The team struggled occasionally throughout the middle portion of the season as they dealt with a series of injuries. Japanese defender Yuri Kawamura suffered an ACL injury in May that took her out for the season. While on duty with the United States women's national team, forward Lynn Williams suffered a leg injury and forward Jess McDonald suffered a hamstring injury that would hobble her for the rest of the season. 

Despite these challenges, forwards Ashley Hatch and Kristen Hamilton stepped up, with Hatch winning the Rookie of the Year award. The team briefly fell to second place in the standings when a game in Kansas City was postponed, but they held the first-place spot in the standings for all but three weeks of the season. The team made their way past the Red Stars in the semifinals but fell to the Thorns in the championship game.

A few offseason changes

The Courage were clearly satisfied with the roster they had being carried over from 2017 into 2018, but they managed to pick up one major offensive weapon in USWNT forward Crystal Dunn. Following the 2016 season, Dunn decided to take her talents to Chelsea FC in the Women's Premier Super League in England to avoid playing for the Spirit. In January, the Courage traded Hatch and defender Taylor Smith for the rights to the dynamic forward. 

Jess McDonald and Crystal Dunn celebrate after they combined to score a goal in the 3-0 preseason victory over the Washington Spirit. | Photo: Sml_nc
Jess McDonald and Crystal Dunn celebrate after they combined to score a goal in the 3-0 preseason victory over the Washington Spirit. | Photo: Sml_nc

The team filled the hole left at right back by Smith with a trade for Merritt Mathias from the Seattle Reign FC. Mathias seems to have locked down that starting position. The Courage added two additional defenders in the Boston Breakers Dispersal Draft. They picked up Canadian international Allysha Chapman and defender Julie King in that draft, and both of those players will be on the final roster. 

The team lost two players from the 2018 roster. Sam Witteman went to play in the Netherlands and Nora Holstad Berge retired after playing sparsely with the team. 

The team added five draft picks in the 2018 NWSL College Draft. Forward Frannie Crouse is the only player currently on the roster, with Ryan Williams, Carlin Hudson, Morgan Reid and Becca Rasmussen currently not on the active roster. 

A perfect preseason

The Courage played five preseason games in 2018 and secured five wins and five clean sheets. The team started out with four matches against collegiate teams and won each of the matches without their national team players. The star of the first four matches was forward Darian Jenkins. Jenkins spent all of her rookie season in 2017 injured, but she made the most of her preseason appearances scoring four goals in the first four matches. One preseason match was canceled due to snow.

The final match of the preseason pitted the Courage against fellow NWSL team Washington Spirit in Richmond, VA. The Courage played hard from whistle to whistle and easily dispatched of their hosts with a 3-0 final scoreline. The high-press system kept the Courage in control throughout the game with goals coming from Abby Erceg, Jess McDonald, and Kristen Hamilton.

The biggest winner from the entire preseason was the defense, allowing zero goals in five matches. The problem with the strong defensive performance was that neither of the Courage goalkeepers were able to separate themselves. D'Angelo and Rowland each played half of the games where they were available, but neither one conceded a goal.

All signs point to a great 2018

The Courage roster has changed very little from the team that won the championship in 2016 as the Western New York Flash. All of the core pieces remain, but Paul Riley has continued to add weapons to an already stacked team. The most important part of the team is their collective mentality. Every player shares equally in the victories regardless of the role they play on the field, and that prevents players from getting complacent and letting off. The high-pressure system from 2017 should continue, and the fitness level of the Courage is unsurpassed in the league. The only achievement left for the team in their second season is an NWSL Championship win, and they should be well positioned to push for the title in 2018.

Record Prediction: 15-4-5 (Win-Draw-Loss)

Overall Placement : 1st