The Road to the NWSL Championship Game: The North Carolina Courage

After six months of play and a semifinals week, the North Carolina Courage reached the NWSL Championship.

The Road to the NWSL Championship Game: The North Carolina Courage
Courage players celebrate another victory in 2017 | Source: Amy Kontras - ISI Photos

The 2017 NWSL season began on April 15, 2017. The North Carolina Courage was one of ten teams that aimed to win as many games as possible to reach the postseason, where only the best four teams after a long and competitive season would clinch playoff spots. Two of those four teams would then play for the NWSL Championship in Orlando, Florida at Orlando City Stadium.

The North Carolina Courage will face the Portland Thorns, after finishing 1st and 2nd place, respectively, and winning their semifinal matches, to finish 2017 as the top team in the league as champions.

The North Carolina Courage: A Dominating Season

For the Courage, after relocating from Rochester, New York, embracing a new ownership, city, and fanbase, the 2017 season could have easily been one to rebuild from a move, trying to prove that a 2016 championship season was not a fluke. 2017, however, showed that what Paul Riley had built in 2016 in Western New York was anything but a fluke. The Courage spent the majority of the season as the top team (20 out of 22 weeks in first place), employing a high press and possession-style of play.

Even if Riley tried to play the underdog card, the truth is that 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. In the semifinal in Cary, in front of the 10,017 fans, North Carolina defeated the Chicago Red Stars, a team they were 0-3 in 2017, on an 89th-minute goal to face the Thorns in the final game.

The North Carolina Courage adopted an underdog mentality for the 2017 season | Source: Andy Mead - ISI Photos
The North Carolina Courage adopted an underdog mentality for the 2017 season | Source: Andy Mead - ISI Photos

Riley nor his players ever believed the hype of their success, instilling that underdog mentality throughout the season. Forward Lynn Williams elaborated on the adopted mentality at the NWSL Championship Media Day: “I think that last year, we had an underdog mentality because we really, truly were the underdogs. Nobody expected us to be in the playoffs, let alone win…At the end of the day, yes, we aren’t ‘the underdogs,’ but we still have that mentality of, we really need to work to get where we need to go. We’ve got to grind it out. We’ve got to fight for everything. Even if it's not pretty.”

So yes, the Courage, on paper have not been the underdogs all season, and many have scoffed at the claim. However, it cannot be denied that Riley has created a system that has allowed young players like Sam Mewis, Lynn Williams, Taylor Smith, Abby Dahlkemper, to flourish and become household names in the NWSL and in the national team picture.

Riley has simply instilled an attitude that winning is not deserved but earned, and that, along with their style of play, is the major reason the Courage will be playing in Orlando to repeat as NWSL Champions.