The North Carolina Courage have built a dynasty. How did they do it?
Updated: Jan 1
In 2018 the North Carolina Courage were the most dominant team in the history of American women’s soccer. For obvious reasons, they were clear favorites to retain the title coming into 2019. But after a 2-1 loss to Reign FC at the end of May, they were stuck on a mere nine points from their opening seven games. And things weren’t exactly looking up, since they would be forced to spend the next six weeks without most of their best players, who would all be busy at the World Cup in France.
How quickly things change.
In fact, the Courage reeled 15 wins in their final 19 matches in the season, including a 4-1 win in the semifinals over the Reign and a 4-0 demolishment of the Chicago Red Stars in the final on Sunday. That victory secured a second straight NWSL title, and third in four years. In their four playoff games in the last two years, they’ve scored a combined 13 goals while conceding just one.
It’s now time to call this team the first true dynasty in the history of American professional women’s soccer. That’s no slight against some of the other great teams from the past—the 2014-2015 Seattle Reign and FCKC teams, the WPS-era FC Gold Pride, and a number of WUSA teams able to draw from the very best players in the world. Those teams were all great, but none accomplished anything close to what the Courage have achieved.
So how did it happen?
The first part of the story isn’t about the Courage per se. It’s simply the fact that the NWSL has survived long enough to make a dynasty possible. WUSA and WPS each folded after three years. Three years into the NWSL, the Courage didn’t exist yet. But their prior incarnation (the Western New York Flash) had managed an appearance in the debut final before slinking to successive 7th place finishes in 2014 and 2015. Hardly the sign of an incipient dynasty.
But the tide was already ready to turn, thanks to some truly inspired draft picks, and an even more inspired coaching change. We’ve heard plenty about the ridiculous 2015 draft class, which netted the Flash:
Abby Dahlkemper—now one of the best center backs in the world
Sam Mewis—now one of the best midfielders in the world
Lynn Williams—now one of the best forwards in the world
Jaelene Hinkle—now one of the best fullbacks in the world
It was a truly outrageous haul. Those four players have been the centerpiece of this club’s incredible run. But it’s not enough to simply draft talented players. You have to develop them, shape them, and get them to play together. And that’s exactly what Paul Riley has done.
Riley is infamous for his obsession with narrative—particularly his insistence on calling his team ‘underdogs’ even as they bulldoze over all opposition, and his #NoFinishLine branding—but there is a powerful truth that underlines those clichés. Riley is a good coach in every respect, but his genius is in cultivating a team dynamic that earns total buy-in from everyone. That’s incredibly difficult to do, and even harder to maintain. And it’s probably the key thing that has allowed his team to sustain their excellence.
Everyone knows that you can build team cohesion by using an ‘us v. them’ dynamic. That’s the easy part. But those sort of teams are unsustainable, because you can’t sustain an antagonistic approach indefinitely. People get tired, the buy-in fades, and the team falls apart. Riley’s genius has been to modulate the intensity—never letting up, but also never pushing his team over the brink.
His team has remained dogged and hard-working, even as they took over the league. They’ve preserved their physical dominance, even as they have improved technically by leaps and bounds. Most importantly, they’ve remained happy warriors even in the face of relentless pressure.
Riley said repeatedly over the championship weekend that his team was in the best physical shape he’d ever seen them. At the pre-game press conference he said “this is the freshest I’ve seen our team in the last four years.” On its face, this seems unbelievable. It’s been a long season, and plenty of his players are clearly ready for a break. But if you watch them play…it suddenly feels believable. Everyone else may struggle with the minutes, but North Carolina on Sunday looked eager and ready.
Facing a truly excellent Chicago team, the Courage didn’t blink once. They simply overran them, imposing their style and making life absolutely impossible for the Red Stars. Chicago features one of the most technical midfields the league has ever seen, with world class ball-handlers like Morgan Brian, Danielle Colaprico, and Vanessa DiBernardo. They were absolutely nowhere in the final. Every time Chicago touched the ball, multiple Courage players swarmed around them. Every pass that was anything less than perfect was intercepted. Every loose ball was chased down by North Carolina. Every 50-50 challenge went in their favor.
How does Riley keep his players amped to this level? According to Jess McDonald on the Friday before the match, the key is that “he makes you comfortable with being uncomfortable.” He creates an environment in which players can feel consistently challenged without ever feeling overwhelmed. And it creates a serious buy-in. In his post-game press conference Riley referenced the idea of “keeping our foot on the accelerator.” But this is language you hear repeatedly from the players.
And you can see the results across the board. North Carolina is a team filled with superstars, but they don’t think of themselves that way. And that’s at least partly because they have almost all become superstars primarily through their collective growth and development. They view themselves as world class players not as individuals but as members of a team. The quartet drafted in 2015 were all great at the time. But the league is full of first round picks who never built on their potential. The unique thing about North Carolina under Riley is how everyone consistently improves, and in doing so helps the rest of their team improve as well.
Consider the MVP of the final—Debinha. When she joined the team in 2017, her attacking potential was obvious for all to see. But she was anything but a complete player. She was casual with possession and offered nothing defensively. As Riley put it after the final: “The first couple months she didn’t fancy playing both sides of the ball, and that didn’t work for me…but she took ownership and accountability for herself. You can see today…she’s a complete player.” That journey from mercurial talent to one of the best in the world is a perfect encapsulation of this team.
Then there’s McCall Zerboni. For years, she seemed like the quintessential average player. Useful, certainly. You can always use a player willing to get stuck in where necessary, and with just enough skill on the ball to not hurt you in possession. But to Riley she was one of the best players in the league. And through their work together, she proved to the world that he was right.
Jess McDonald was a great goal-scorer and a valuable player on plenty of teams before joining the Flash. But she had never really settled anywhere despite her ability. On joining the team, she started adding new pieces to her game. Her partnership with Lynn Williams has been consistent and consistently impressive over the past four years. Not just for the goals, but for the intelligent movement, the unlocking of space, the clever passing.
Crystal Dunn was one of the best players in the world long before joining the squad, earning the league’s MVP award in 2015. But he game has taken another step forward with the Courage. She’s been, by far, the most dangerous player in the league over the past two years, largely because the rest of the team gives her an incredible palette to work with. Her movement off the ball is now among the best in the world, and her positional awareness has gone off the charts.
Abby Erceg went from a middling player in Chicago to one of the best defenders in the world under Riley. Kristen Hamilton went from the last player selected in the draft to an MVP candidate. Heather O’Reilly spent much of the summer reporting on the World Cup from France, only to slide back into the job of starting right back for the final month.
And finally there’s Denise O’Sullivan was waived by the unhappy Houston Dash. Not traded, just waived for nothing. But Riley saw her potential and brought her into the team. She’s now turned into one of the best 6s in the league, seemingly out of sheer determination and will. And that’s been especially important because 2019 saw a significant step down from McCall Zerboni. For another team that would be a disaster. But the Courage didn’t even blink an eye. Zerboni’s minutes declined, allowing her to settle into a more restrained role, while O’Sullivan stepped seamlessly into the job. It’s all been a bit of a surprise, even to O’Sullivan herself. In her own words, on Friday: “A few years ago I wouldn’t have seen myself as a #6 at all. But now I really enjoy it. Helps that I’m playing next to Sam Mewis.”
And that’s one last key theme with this team. Every player is made better by being surrounded by other players also being pushed to exceed their limits. Because ultimately, there is never a single author when it comes to this sort of success. Riley surely deserves a lot of credit, as do the players, and the management. As Dan Lauletta noted in his recent column on this subject, this is about the culture of an entire organization.
The breadth and depth of this team was made crystal clear in the way they created chances in the final. Three of the four goals came from putting their opponent under pressure and just refusing to give up. The fourth came from a genius long ball and a beautiful finish. They can score messy goals and beautiful ones. They can create chances from nothing, and can build play through long stretches. And every single player on the team is dangerous. In the final, all 10 starters were credited with at least one chance created, but none created more than two. That’s full spectrum dominance.
The 2018 Courage season was the greatest collective performance in the history of professional women’s soccer in this country. But in some ways their 2019 season was even more impressive. To come back and defend their title, especially after struggling a bit, demonstrates their resilience and development. And shows that the Courage dynasty is probably here to stay for quite a while.
Good luck to everyone else!