Abby Dahlkemper was offered her first United States Women's National Team contract in 2018 after becoming a mainstay on the defensive line next to Becky Sauerbrunn. The road to the USWNT has taken her across the country and to teams around the world as she pushed herself to become one of the best center backs in the United States. Now she plays for a North Carolina Courage team that won the National Women's Soccer League regular season in their first year of existence but couldn't quite come away with the 2017 NWSL Championship. The team is poised to have another phenomenal year with Dahlkemper leading the team on defense.
Here at VAVEL we had an opportunity to speak with Abby about her experience with the USWNT and the upcoming NWSL season. She already has an NWSL Championship and Shield under her belt, but it's obvious that she is hungry for more team success in 2018.
Making the most of the USWNT
Abby Dahlkemper has played with the USWNT from the U-17 side all the way through the senior team. She got her first senior cap in 2016 and never looked back. It didn't take long for her to become a consistent starter for the highest-ranked national team in the world.
Always humble, Dahlkemper impressed that she "never takes anything for granted" and "always learns so much from time with the National Team. The speed of play is so high" and she enjoys the opportunity to play with the best players in the world.
At the 2018 SheBelieves Cup, Dahlkemper started all three matches alongside 19-year old Stanford sophomore Tierna Davidson. When they got into camp together, the two players learned that they "grew up less than a mile apart" but they "never played together." They must have been a year or two apart from having that opportunity, and they even attended the same high school. Dahlkemper said of Davidson that "she is so composed on the ball. She is seamless on and off the ball." It was obvious that the young defender had made a positive impression on her.
Comparing the past to the present
The Western New York Flash won the 2016 NWSL Championship despite entering the playoffs as the fourth seed on a significant skid. The team's defense was one of the worst in the league, and their games were typically shootouts where they would cross their fingers and hope to score more goals than the opponents scored against them. The team was sold and rebranded as the North Carolina Courage, but a different defensive team appeared in Cary, North Carolina for the 2017 NWSL season.
The Courage ended up being one of the stingiest defenses in the league, and they set a record for the most clean sheets in a season with 12. Asked about the transformation, Dahlkemper mentioned "stability and consistently playing with Abby [Erceg] at the back." Erceg had played more of a midfield role in previous seasons but moved to the back full time for 2016 and 2017. They "work well together after two years together." The same four defenders, Dahlkemper, Erceg, Taylor Smith and Jaelene Hinkle played together in 2016 and 2017.
The team mentality instituted by head coach Paul Riley was "high press. The defense starts with the forwards. The team found an identity," and "they grew as a whole and individually. Both goalkeepers got more talented." Most importantly, the team's "work rate and fitness" improved, and they had more experience as a team. Paul Riley keeps the team grounded by "not setting goals because there really is no finish line." The mantra about not setting goals was echoed in a recent interview with Kristen Hamilton, and the Courage use the #nofinishline theme in all team statements.
New players "help the team"
During the offseason, Taylor Smith and Ashley Hatch were traded to the Washington Spirit for the rights to USWNT forward Crystal Dunn. The Courage played their last preseason match in a 3-0 victory against the Spirit. Asked about the trade, Dahlkemper said that it was tough because they were "all close friends. We still talk regularly, and we wish them the best." She also said "it is a great opportunity for them to start. Washington has put together a great side." Playing against them, she was "able to catch up."
Dahlkemper played alongside Merritt Mathias for the first time in that preseason game, and Dahlkemper said "she earned the right back spot. She is positive and a good team addition. Merritt is a tough player to play against." Important for the Courage's high-press system, she mentioned that Mathias was "super fit, and she fits well into the team." She made note that Mathias had "good team chemistry on and off the field. She is already close with teammates."
Like everyone else in the NWSL sphere, Dahlkemper was surprised by the Boston Breakers folding just before the season, saying "it was a big stir up." But that the Dispersal Draft was a chance to "add good depth. The players can help the team by vying for a starting spot." The Courage drafted Allysha Chapman and Julie King, and while King has not yet joined the team due to an injury, Dahlkemper could speak about Chapman.
"Chappy is great. She adds good depth to the team. She added positive energy" to the team.
Opening the season against Portland
When asked about the opening match against the Portland Thorns FC, Dahlkemper mentioned: "There is not much talk about Portland." It is a chance for us to "collectively, as a group, improve. We are all on the same page. It is a chance to develop chemistry." She said, "it is a mix of excitement and nerves," and that the team "is not as focused on them as we are on us. We want to go out and have fun."
The team is the priority for the Courage. Between not worrying about the Portland rematch and the talk about not setting personal goals, it is clear that Dahlkemper is primarily concerned with the performance of the team over personal accolades. The Courage will look to start the season off right in 2018 when they host the Thorns at WakeMed Soccer Park in the opening game of the season on March 24.