The North Carolina Courage finished at the top of the National Women's Soccer League in their first season with the league and made it to the 2017 NWSL Championship match. The team was one of the toughest defensive units and played a brand of fiery soccer that showed off their physical abilities and fitness. Despite the team's success, one of the most successful forwards in NWSL history struggled with injuries and never quite found her form. Now, Jess McDonald is back to full health and ready to show her stuff alongside some of the most physically gifted attackers in all of women's soccer.
Here at VAVEL we had the opportunity to talk with Jess about the team's growth from 2016 to 2017 and what we should be expecting from the squad in the upcoming season. McDonald is one of the highest scoring players in the NWSL and has won a Championship and the Supporters' Shield, but she feels that there is plenty left to accomplish in the coming year.
Speed and maturity changed the game
Jess McDonald and many of her teammates were part of the Western New York Flash team that won the 2016 NWSL Championship against all odds after stumbling into the playoffs. That team played a wide-open version of soccer where the team would cross their fingers and hope to hammer home more goals than their opponents. Nothing better exemplifies this 2016 mentality than the playoffs, where they bested the Portland Thorns FC 4-3 in extra time, before scoring a goal to tie the Washingon Spirit 2-2 in the 121st minute of the Championship match. The final regulation goal of that match came when McDonald found herself with space, and she played a perfect cross to the head of Lynn Williams. Williams fought off two Washington defenders to head the ball home, and the Flash won in penalty kicks.
The Courage came out as a completely different team in 2017. They broke the NWSL record with 12 shutouts and played a much more defensive brand of soccer. Asked about the change, McDonald said "just, the speed of play increased and our fitness increased. We are more mature on the field. In 2016, you know, everyone was like 22, 23 years old." That statement couldn't be more true. Williams, Abby Dahlkemper, Sam Mewis, Taylor Smith, and Jaelene Hinkle, all players who would make appearances with the United States women's national team, were 22 or 23.
She also brought up head coach Paul Riley. "It really starts with Paul Riley. He puts everyone's strengths first and finds a way to use them." Riley frequently referred to McDonald and Williams as the "twin towers" on the offensive line because their imposing physical characteristics made them especially dangerous near the goal.
The 2017 season started out great for McDonald. The Courage rattled off four straight wins, and in the fourth one, McDonald scored the goal that would make her the leading goal scorer in NWSL history. She took over the spot from Kim Little, but unlike Little, McDonald never scored a goal from the penalty spot to add to her total. Asked about the goal, McDonald said "I knew it would happen. I think it was someone with the organization who told me about it during the week. Lynn Williams reminded me during the game, she was like 'Jess!'"
Injuries dampen the season
In early summer the Courage suffered a bout of injuries. Williams was injured with the USWNT when they traveled to Scandinavia to face off against Norway and Sweden, and McDonald injured her hamstring during NWSL play. The two forwards played sparsely over the new two months, but Kristen Hamilton and Ashley Hatch stepped up and kept the offense humming. Williams eventually returned to a starting role, but McDonald played a substitute role through the end of the season to avoid taxing her hamstring.
Asked about the injury, McDonald said with great relief in her voice, "I'm fully recovered. I feel great. I'm ready to get out there and play."
A brand new offense and the new season
McDonald came to training camp in 2018 ready to roll. Hatch and Smith had been traded to the Spirit for the rights to USWNT forward Crystal Dunn, and Darian Jenkins, who spent all of 2017 recovering from a broken leg, brought more pace and strength to the offensive side of the ball.
Asked about how the six forwards would work together, Jess wouldn't provide details. Instead, she said "I guess I just have two things to say. It's going to be crazy and a lot of people are going to be surprised." She said that she looked forward to watching Jenkins "sprout as a player." Jenkins has done a good job so far, scoring four goals in her five preseason appearances.
She also spoke about Sam Mewis missing in the midfield. "McCall [Zerboni] is holding it down. A huge chunk of the team is still there; Denise [O'Sullivan], Debinha, Speck. McCall keeps control with her presence on and off the field. Dunn is also going to step up in the midfield. The pace hasn't gone."
Finally, Jess spoke about the opening match of the season against Portland. "Of course there is revenge, playing that Championship game again. In that game we were dropping like flies. It's great to be opening with this game."