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5 Players to Watch: North Carolina Courage

The National Women’s Soccer League features some of the biggest stars in the world. With the Summer Olympics kicking off in July, many of those stars will be absent for a significant portion of the season. Additionally, the start of the league’s Challenge Cup competition will fall in an international FIFA window, meaning the national team players will be called up instead of being with their club teams to start the tournament. Fortunately, the league’s impressive depth will be showcased while the internationals are away. This series will highlight five players from each NWSL team who can take advantage of the opportunity to make a name for themselves this season.

The North Carolina Courage will look a bit different this year, but not just because the Olympics will likely take several key players from the squad. This off-season has been a busy one, and the Courage have lost some really special players, including Crystal Dunn, Abby Dahlkemper, and Sam Mewis to name a few. The astonishing fact that one roster contained all of those players in addition to players like Lynn Williams and Debinha aside, this will be a year of adjustments.

There are some big questions Paul Riley will need to answer, and one I’m most excited to see is whether the box midfield will return for the 2021 season. The Courage box midfield has historically struck fear and awe into anyone who witnessed its relentless pressure and its ability to shut down opposing teams. But during the Fall Series, missing some important pieces, Riley opted to mix things up and try some new formations. It’ll be interesting to see how he utilizes this roster, which, to be clear, still contains a ton of talent.

From the outside, the Courage look a bit more human this year. But North Carolina has the talent and the mindset to succeed this season despite all the changes. Here are five players I think will be key in making that possible.

Jessica McDonald

It feels unnecessary to write this fundamental truth, but it also cannot be overstated: Jessica McDonald is a wildly talented forward who is incredibly important to North Carolina. Skilled on the ball and brilliant in her positioning and awareness, Jess has been scoring goals and providing assists for the Courage since before they were the Courage.

McDonald possesses the skill and experience to lead this team through what may be a challenging season, especially with some goal scorers heading to the Olympics in the summer. She’ll be incredibly important to the team, and really fun to watch this year.

Kristen Hamilton

Kristen Hamilton had her breakout season for the Courage in 2019, a World Cup year. With national team players missing and more starting spots on the frontline up for grabs, Hamilton stepped up as a starting striker and went to town. Skilled at beating her defenders and scoring stunning goals from just about anywhere, Hamilton took that opportunity to change her role on a team that’s stacked with stars.

This season, she’ll be expected to step up again, and I’m willing to bet she’s up for the challenge. Hamilton is an exciting player to watch, and as she continues to cement her spot on this team, I wonder if we’ll see her getting another chance at a place on the national team as well.

Taylor Smith

Taylor Smith has had some bad luck over the course of her career so far, but after a bit of a winding road she’s back in North Carolina with an opportunity to really shine. Smith was on the edge of breaking into the national team when she fell out of favor and lost allocation status in 2018, around the same time she tore her ACL while playing in Australia. Then coach of the Reign FC, Vlatko Andonovski saw enough potential in Smith to sign her to the team despite the fact that she would spend her first season off the pitch recovering from injury.

Smith saw some minutes in 2020 playing defense for a struggling OL Reign, but the shortened season didn’t provide much time to get back into form and gel with the team. Now, returning to a familiar place with some familiar faces, Smith has a full season ahead of her to contribute to a Courage side that could use a defender who can meaningfully contribute to the attack, especially after Jaelene Daniels’ retirement last year. Taylor Smith is a special player with a ton of potential, and this could be a great opportunity to earn a starting spot on the Courage backline.

Meredith Speck

Meredith Speck has had some trouble getting consistent minutes with the Courage over the last few years, but the Fall Series saw her get some looks at several positions on the left side of the pitch and even add a couple of assists to her stat sheet. With roster changes and the summer Olympics this year, Speck’s ability to play on defense or in the midfield could make her really important for the team’s ability to compete for the full season despite changing lineups.

With the tinkering I expect to see specifically in the shape of the midfield and the backline this year, I’m hoping we’ll see Speck rise to the opportunity and find her role in this new Courage team.

Rylee Baisden

Rylee Baisden has already made the most of an opportunity to play for a Courage side missing some important players. Last year, when it became clear that the roster would be thin for the Fall Series, Lynn Williams suggested that Paul Riley call her old college friend, Rylee. As is unfortunately the case for countless talented players, Rylee left college without a path to an NWSL team. So, when Paul Riley called out of the blue last year, Baisden packed her bags and traveled to North Carolina.

Though the Fall Series didn’t provide a lot of data on Baisden’s play, she made enough of an impression to receive a one-year contract with the team. The 2021 season offers many things, but most importantly it gives Baisden time. I suspect she’ll make the most of it, and I’m excited to see the path forward Rylee creates for herself in this league.