North Carolina Courage and the NWSL Challenge Cup: Perennial Underdogs Look To Finally Win Something

Head Coach: Paul Riley


Sidenote: How has Riley not been made a Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire yet? Few other coaches in women’s soccer have achieved for club what Riley has.

I believe we should all write to the Queen and explain what a serious oversight this has been.


2019 record: 49 points - 15 wins, 4 draws, 5 losses - First Place, and NWSL Champions


Player(s) you should know: Really this roster is jam packed with talent and it did cross my mind to just say all of them. But I will call out three players that really make this team tick.


Abby Erceg: Look. I’m not saying she is the best center back in the NWSL history. But I am saying that she is one of the most winning center backs in NWSL history as well as being a New Zealand international and having the approximate tackle force of a freight train. She is able to see a few moves ahead of most attackers while being able to find the right angle to cut off attackers who might otherwise think they beat her. Her partnership with Abby Dahlkemper is one the bigger reasons the team has been able to win as much as they have.


Debinha: It takes a lot of soccer intelligence, training, and just pure talent for Debinha to make soccer look as effortless as she does. When she is at her best, she is able to control the ball in ways that seem inconceivable to those watching. The Courage have one of the most potent attacks in all of women’s soccer, international and domestic, and at the center of it oftentimes is Debinha.


Crystal Dunn: Dunn is a master of being just where she needs to be for any given moment of the game. Do the Courage need her to be an attacker, blazing down the center of the pitch with the ball at her feet? Do they need her to track back and put in some defensive work to try and win the ball? Do they need her to sit just under the last defender so a long ball can find her and she can perform magic before our very eyes? Dunn, Dunn and Dunn. She is as smart on the pitch as they come, able to play just about any position - goalkeeper might not be her first choice, but I don’t doubt she could figure it out if she had to - and unrelenting on the pitch. She is a total package.


Under the Radar: This is a hard thing when it comes to the Courage because one thing Riley does is talk about his players. A lot. And he talks them up. A lot. Making it hard for even players with few minutes to really fly under the radar.


If I did have to go with a more underrated player, I’d have to go with Merritt Mathias.


Everyone who knows the NWSL knows who Merritt Mathias is. But we really were reintroduced to her once she was traded to the Courage and moved to the right back position. She is the type of player who can be brash, who can overcommit to a play, but it sort of just works - both because of the center back pairing next to her, and because that is sort of the Courage’s style. One player can overcommit because the player beside them will always be there to clean up their mess if one is made.


It's a shame Mathias isn't playing in this event. But her Twitter will be alive and well, I am sure.


Offseason moves: McCall Zerboni being traded to Sky Blue is the biggest move of the Courage offseason by a mile.


The broken elbow that Zerboni suffered against Chile on September 4, 2018 very well changed the course of her career. And, it ultimately changed her role with the Courage enough that it looks like they were willing to part with her for the rights to Hallie Mace - a move that would have been unthinkable during 2018.


What makes them exciting: They win. A lot.


Over the last three regular seasons they have earned 72% of all possible points they could have. In the last two seasons that number jumps up to 74%. And over the last two seasons they are the only team with a win percentage above 50%.


Watching a dominant team win and having a love/hate relationship with that team is as American as it comes when it comes to sports.


Matchups:


Saturday, June 27 at 12:30 pm eastern the NC Courage will play the Portland Thorns FC on CBS & CBS ALL ACCESS.


Wednesday, July 1 at 10:00 pm eastern NC Courage will play the Washington Spirit on CBS ALL ACCESS.


Sunday, July 5 at 12:30 pm eastern NC Courage will play the Chicago Red Stars on CBS ALL ACCESS.


Sunday, July 13 at 10:00 pm eastern NC Courage will play the Sky Blue FC on CBS ALL ACCESS.


We’re clearly all waiting for the Courage vs Sky Blue FC game.


Wait. Sorry.


I’m being told it’s the Courage vs Thorns game is what people are excited for. And yes, it’s two of the best teams in the league playing each other. But it’s also the very first game any of these players have played in months. Not to mention playing for a draw here and three wins elsewhere might be more of a benefit for both teams. Not that the Courage often play for a draw.


It’s also the first game on big CBS and the only non-final game on CBS.


Why they could win the Cup: They are the best team in women’s soccer in the world. They have a coach that can motivate them, players who know how to work together to win, and more fire power than the 145th Airlift Wing of the North Carolina Air National Guard.


If North Carolina doesn’t win the Cup, it’s a much bigger story than if they do.


Biggest challenge: Four group stage games in a short turn-around, an unknown seeding process for knock-outs, and almost no warm-up time before the event.


This Cup is just begging for two random teams to make the finals, and a team that might have finished mid-table to win it.


Even the Courage can’t stop random chance.


Oh, and goalkeeping is not their strongest position.


Predicted finish: They win.


If this event was held 100 times they could reasonably win 85 times.


Something random: North Carolina has dropped only 61regular season points in the last three years during 72 matches played. The Utah Royals have played only 48 matches in team history and they have dropped 75 points.