Last year’s shield winners and NWSL championship runners-up, the North Carolina Courage open the season at home against the Portland Thorns on March 24th. Rarely the underdog, the Courage will embrace a Junkyard Dog mentality from whistle to whistle all season long. Voted by the league general managers and NWSL media association to finish at the top of the table, look for the Courage to show up.
Head Coach: Paul Riley
2017 record: 16-7-1, first in the league
Projected Starting XI: Considering she started the majority of the games in 2017 following an injury to Sabrina D’Angelo, Katelyn Rowland will likely start in goal. However, the fact that D’Angelo is still with the Courage and fighting for that starting spot means they may take turns at the keeper position until the strongest battle-tested keeper emerges. Look for alternating starts early.
Losing Taylor Smith in the trade to Washington was a tough blow to the Courage’s defensive chemistry. However, the acquisition of Allysha Chapman and Julie King from Boston is likely to fill that defensive space with experience. Paul Riley started a four-woman backline for nearly all of 2017, so look to see USWNT defender Abby Dahlkemper and New Zealand international, Abby Erceg hold it down in the center back positions. Per usual, Jaelene Hinkle will likely start out wide on either side.
The midfield is where the Courage earn their Junkyard Dogs nickname. Battling for possession with the best of them, you’ll find future USWNT captain Sam Mewis alongside seasoned veteran McCall Zerboni. Adding to the midfield on the attack, I predict Brazilian number ten Debinha to get the opening-day starting nod, while Kristen Hamilton will return from an injury sustained in the 2017 NWSL championship to avenge the loss to Portland.
Finally, as Riley likes to start a powerful pair up top, Lynn Williams will surely show off her speed in a starting role, and Crystal Dunn, acquired in the aforementioned trade with Washington, will bring her 2015 NWSL Golden Boot power from Chelsea to Cary, where she and Williams will develop the kind of chemistry necessary to make the USWNT successful in the 2019 Women’s World Cup.
Player you should know: Sam Mewis. Mewis was only one of two USWNT players to start every single national team match in 2017. Keep your eye on her for her competitive drive and ability to take quality shots on goal. Following the loss to Portland in the NWSL final, an on-camera interview with Mewis showed her determination and desire to get back on the field. Keep an eye on her fire this season.
Under the radar: If you’re not yet familiar with midfielder McCall Zerboni, allow me to make an introduction. In 2017, Zerboni started 25 games and scored three goals. Her voice on the field is audible throughout WakeMed Soccer Park at any given moment, showing her leadership at every turn. Her NWSL play did not go unnoticed, as she was voted to the league’s Best XI and earned her very first USWNT call up on October 22, where she got her first cap in front of a hometown crowd.
Biggest offseason acquisition: Without a doubt, this is Crystal Dunn. While it hurt to lose Taylor Smith and 2017 Rookie of the Year Ashley Hatch, Dunn will bring a consistent spark to the team that was missed on offense last year.
Biggest rival: Portland. The 2017 NWSL Championship was a knock-down, drag-out, physical fight akin to some pay-per-view fights, but without the financial reward. The Courage suffered a string of unnecessary injuries due to the heightened physicality in that game (here’s looking at you, Tobin Heath) and the pain of the loss will not soon be forgotten. Lucky for the league, this rivalry sets the stage for the first Lifetime Game of the Week of the 2018 season.
Most memorable moment from 2017: Denise O’Sullivan’s goal in the final moments of the semifinal game vs. Chicago.
Why they’re the team to watch in 2018: There’s something enticing about a team that claims to be the underdog when they rarely are. In North Carolina, the fan base for NWSL soccer is growing, and a team comprised of talented, passionate players is one to watch, for sure.
Predicted finish: First.
Success depends on: The health of the players.
Fun prediction: Crystal Dunn, Carli Lloyd, and Sam Kerr battle it out for the 2018 NWSL Golden Boot.