2018 NWSL College Draft Preview: North Carolina Courage

The Courage won the Shield made it to the Championship Game in their inaugural NWSL season, but how could they improve going into their second season?

2018 NWSL College Draft Preview: North Carolina Courage
The Courage had the best away record in the league in 2017 at 7-4-1. | Photo: Andrew Bershaw - Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The 2017 National Women's Soccer League season came to a close in October when the North Carolina Courage were beaten 1-0 by the Portland Thorns in a physical game that tested the depth of the Courage. Defender Taylor Smith suffered a shoulder injury in the third minute that would shortly take her out of the game and forward Kristen Hamilton suffered a knee injury that ended her day later in the first half. In the previous playoff game against the Chicago Red Stars, a 1-0 victory, Brazilian midfielder Debinha was injured and would be unable to play in the final match after suffering an elbow/shoulder injury of her own. 

The Courage had significant injury issues throughout the season as well, with forwards Jess McDonald and Lynn Williams both missing substantial time with leg injuries, and Japanese defender Yuri Kawamura tore her ACL in May in a match against the Red Stars. The injuries allowed Ashley Hatch, 2017 NWSL Rookie of the Year, and Kristen Hamilton to work their way into the starting lineup, but demonstrated that even the strongest teams need to have depth at every position. When Taylor Smith and Jaelene Hinkle suffered injuries during the season things got so bad that Jess McDonald was forced to start the second match against Chicago playing wingback.

The Courage, and the Western New York Flash who preceded them, have been excellent at developing talent. Of the four players - Abby Dahlkemper, Sam Mewis, Taylor Smith, and Jaelene Hinkle - that were drafted by the Flash or Courage who have made appearances for the Senior National team, only Mewis had played any games before joining the organization. All signs point to Ashley Hatch having a similar career path.

The 2018 NWSL College Draft will be in Philadelphia, PA on Thursday, January 18, at 10:00 am ET. 

The forwards are set

Lynn William (front) and Jess McDonald (left) were the core of the Courage offense to start the season, and they were suplemented by Ashley Hatch and Kristen Hamilton. | Photo: Joe Petro - Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Lynn William (front) and Jess McDonald (left) were the core of the Courage offense to start the season, and they were supplemented by Ashley Hatch and Kristen Hamilton. | Photo: Joe Petro - Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

While it is impossible to rule out the chance that a great offensive prospect will fall to the Courage, odds are that forward won't be a position that they actively seek in the draft. Lynn Williams is a National team caliber player and Ashley Hatch won Rookie of the Year after leading all rookies with seven goals scored in 2017. Jess McDonald worked well as an offensive super-sub, and Kristen Hamilton ended up starting as a hybrid forward/midfield after proving to be a valuable offensive asset. Her hard work was rarely matched on the field.

The Courage also found two powerful attacking midfielders in Debinha and Irish national Denise O'Sullivan, who came to the Courage after being released by the Houston Dash. Debinha started the season strong, but her fitness level was a bit lacking. O'Sullivan worked hard for the Courage and scored the game-winning goal against the Chicago Red Stars in the playoffs.

Additionally, 2017 draft pick Darian Jenkins, who was sidelined for the entire 2017 season with an old injury, should be coming back to add an extra spark to the offense. She was warming up with the team late in the season but was never activated.

Midfield and defense are areas of need

Four Courage players converge on Lindsey Horan of the Portland Thorns. | Photo: Diego Diaz - Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Four Courage players converge on Lindsey Horan of the Portland Thorns. | Photo: Diego Diaz - Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Courage excelled during the 2017 season when they were able to push the ball up the flank and cut crosses into the box, but their ability to achieve those results waned throughout the season. Early on they tried playing a 3-back with New Zealander Abby Erceg, Dahlkemper, and Kawamura on the back line, which allowed Smith and Hinkle to attack the opposing defense. This broke down for many reasons including the ACL injury to Kawamura, injuries to Hinkle and Smith, and a red card suffered by Erceg. 

The Courage probably need to focus on getting once central defender, which they tried to achieve by signing Norwegian defender North Holstad Berge, but she was not able to get into top form and ended up retiring after the 2017 season, and one wing defender in the draft. 

In the midfield, McCall Zerboni and Sam Mewis are locks in the center of the park, but the wing midfielders are lacking. The Courage tried to cover this deficiency by playing Hamilton at a hybrid forward/midfield position and giving Taylor Smith freedom to move up and down the flank, but that plan fell apart spectacularly when both players got injured in the championship game. The Courage need to find someone who can play that possession-exterior role in the midfield, and they probably need to add a central holding midfielder in case Mewis or Zerboni suffer an injury. 

Makenzy Doniak, who is currently playing for Adelaide United in the Westfield W-League in Australia, projects to be the substitute wing midfielder, a position she played well down the stretch last season. If she comes back from Australia in good form the need in the midfield could be mitigated.

Draft picks and prospects

After winning the NWSL Supporters Shield in 2017 the Courage have the following draft picks available to them:

Round 1: 10th

Round 2: 10th

Round 4: 8th, 9th and 10th

The following are a few possible selections that the Courage might make in the upcoming draft. (Note: these are educated guesses at best and may not represent the actual draft goals of the Courage front office.)

Schuyler Dupree (Duke University) - Defender

Gabby Seiler (Florida) - Midfielder

Brianna Visalli (Pepperdine University) - Midfielder

Chloe Williams (Eastern Washington University) - Midfielder

Vanessa Gilles (University of Cincinnati) - Defender

Rachel Bloznalis (Boston University) - Defender