2016 Record (as Western New York Flash): 9-6-5, 4th Place; Won NWSL Championship.
Head Coach: Paul Riley – 2nd Season
Additions: Debinha – M (free agent), Rosana – M (free agent), Yuri Kawamura – D (free agent), Sam Witteman – M/D (trade- Orlando), Ashley Hatch – F (draft), Darian Jenkins – F (draft)
Departures: Alanna Kennedy – D (trade, Orlando), Britt Eckerstrom – GK (trade, Portland), Janice Cayman – M/D (released), Michaela Hahn – M (released)
To say that the Western New York Flash’s championship-winning season in 2016 was a surprise would be considered an understatement. The Flash were coming off a second consecutive 7th place finish. The front office had once again overhauled the roster with no players remaining from the squad in 2014. Head coach Aaran Lines stepped away after 7 years and handed the reigns over to Paul Riley, who had parted ways with Portland following two disappointing seasons in the Rose City. All the signs were pointing to a third straight bottom-half finish.
But the youngest team in the NWSL pulled off one of the most surprising performances in the league’s short history, overcoming a slow start to the season to claim the final spot in the playoffs, where they knocked off Portland in the semifinal and Washington in the final to claim their first NWSL championship.
Now with a new name, new home, and new ownership, the newly christened North Carolina Courage look to defend their championship as the new kids on the block.
Firepower: The Flash led the league in goals last season, with forward tandem Jessica McDonald and 2016 MVP Lynn Williams accounting for 21 of the team’s 40 goals. A midseason formation switch from the 4-3-3 preferred by Lines to a standard 4-4-2 sparked the partnership between McDonald and Williams and sent the Flash on a run that propelled them into the postseason. Rookie Makenzy Doniak was electric on the wings, wrecking defenses with her speed and chipping in three goals and four assists. Sam Mewis excelled as the team’s playmaker, pulling the strings in the Flash midfield and added her share of goals for the team. And the midseason return of the Flash’s all-time caps leader McCall Zerboni helped stabilize the Flash midfield and gave another veteran presence to a young core.
Not content with what proved to be a powerful offense, the Courage went hunting for more firepower in the off-season and signed the Brazilian duo of Debinha and Rosana, as well as using their two first-round draft picks on Ashley Hatch and Darian Jenkins. Debinha was one of the most exciting players to watch at the Rio Olympics, and she and Rosana will bring the flair to an offense that was blazing fast, yet a bit predictable. Hatch has seen time with the USWNT and lit up defenses in college on a regular basis. Jenkins is a question mark, having suffered a serious leg injury that ended her college career and joined the club late in preseason, but was outstanding for UCLA prior to her injury.
With the embarrassment of riches up top now available to Paul Riley, it could be a major headache for him to get all the forwards enough playing time.
Paul Riley: What looked to be an area of concern heading into last season has proven to be a strength for a team of young talent. Riley has shown, both with the Independence in WPS and now with the Courage, that molding a squad largely devoid of big personalities into a good team is what he does best. And while the Courage are now a bit older thanks to some midseason and off-season acquisitions, the squad as a whole is on the younger side and will continue to benefit from his experience.
Wait and See:
Is Sabrina D’Angelo the best option in goal? Yes, it does sound crazy to ask whether D’Angelo should be the unquestioned starter, but it might be worth considering. D’Angelo has a lot of potential and has shown flashes of brilliance in goal in her two professional seasons. Her performance in the championship shootout was one of the best moments of goalkeeping in the NWSL’s short history. But D’Angelo has also had her share of howlers in the box, is prone to questionable decision-making, and has missed significant time in the past two seasons to injury. If the injury bug strikes again, the Courage have a quality backup in Katelyn Rowland. While Rowland is less flashy than D’Angelo, she has shown more consistency in her limited starts and may push for more playing time if D’Angelo struggles or falls victim to the injury curse.
Where is the defense? Riley has instituted a very offensive-minded game plan, and a consequence of focusing on the offense has been leaving the backline a lower priority. The Flash had one of the leakiest backlines in 2016, and they still have questions to answer about who will be the preferred starting line. The center back pairing of Abby Dahlkemper and Abby Erceg was lackluster at the start of last season and quickly replaced with a more effective pairing of Dahlkemper and Alanna Kennedy, but with Kennedy being sent to Orlando in the off-season, the position is wide open.
If Erceg stays at defensive midfielder–where she excelled last season–then the other options at CB are Courtney Niemiec, Claire Wagner, and Yuri Kawamura. Niemiec is a journeyman player who has not proven to be a preferred starting option in stints with Portland and now Carolina, and while Kawamura has experience for numerous clubs in Japan, this will be her first overseas stint. Of the two, Kawamura is the more experienced and will likely be the number one choice to pair with Dahlkemper.
And while the choice of CB may be concerning, a more pressing issue may be who starts at right back. Jaelene Hinkle is the obvious choice at left back and has been a strong two-way player for the Flash when healthy, but RB is a worry for Courage fans. Liz Eddy claimed the starting spot last season, and looked strong going forward, but often seemed like the weak link in the backline. The Courage acquired Sam Witteman from Orlando in the off-season, ostensibly to add some depth, and both Taylor Smith and Meredith Speck were pressed into RB duty last season. None of the 4 are top notch defenders, and that glaring weakness in the Courage backline could become an issue for the coaching staff as the season goes on.
Deadly, yet inconsistent and predictable offense: While the Flash could be deadly on offense, almost half of their goals came against a woeful Boston Breakers team, and they had several games where they outshot their opposition by a wide margin, but failed to score. The 3-5-2 formation used by Washington in the final caught the Flash off guard and the offense failed to truly test the Spirit backline for the entire 120 minutes. The coaching staff will need to find a way to diversify their attack if they’re going to return to the postseason.
Key Player: Sam Mewis. While Williams and McDonald’s goal scoring grabbed most of the headlines last year, Mewis was the key to the offense and the Courage will need her to take a step further and become more consistent if they want to retain their championship.
Player to Watch: Abby Dahlkemper. The one consistent presence on the Flash backline last season, Dahlkemper played every minute of the 2016 season and her much-improved sophomore season earned her a National Team call-up and her first 2 caps for the USWNT last fall.
Season Outlook: All the ingredients are there for the Courage to repeat as champions. If Riley can mix them together as he did last year, a trip to the postseason is likely.
2017 NC Courage Roster
Goalkeepers (2): Katelyn Rowland, Sabrina D’Angelo (FED-CAN)
Defenders (8): Elizabeth Eddy, Abby Erceg (INTL-NZ), Taylor Smith, Abby Dahlkemper, Jaelene Hinkle, Courtney Niemiec, Meredith Speck, Yuri Kawamura (INTL-JAPAN)
Midfielders (5): Samantha Mewis (FED-USA), McCall Zerboni, Samantha Witteman, Rosana (INTL-BRA), Debinha (INTL-BRA)
Forwards (6): Makenzy Doniak, Lynn Williams (FED-USA), Jessica McDonald, Kristen Hamilton, Ashley Hatch, Darian Jenkins (D45)