As the second half started in the NWSL Championship between the North Carolina Courage and the Chicago Red Stars, most would be forgiven for thinking the Courage might slow down a little and coast their way to a third consecutive NWSL Championship. Debinha, Jessica McDonald and Crystal Dunn had put the hosts up by three goals when the half-time whistle blew and the Red Stars had barely mustered a murmur in response. In fact, frustration was evident from Samantha Kerr who could not get the ball from her midfield in ideal enough areas to really trouble the Courage backline - unlike the Courage forwards, who continued to get the ball in space and in the final third of the Chicago’s half of the field.
In the 61st minute, a key figure of that Courage midfield made it four goals to nil. Sam Mewis, who has risen in stature for both club and country over the last few years, capped off her season with a championship goal as her team cruised to another fantastic season.
Heather O’Reilly, who was playing her final game as a professional soccer player, took a corner which was initially cleared by the Red Stars, but their clearance fell to Abby Dahlkemper who was lurking just past the halfway line. Dahlkemper’s service fell in that in-between spot that goalkeepers hate and Mewis got to the ball before the onrushing Alyssa Naeher. Admittedly, Naeher may have been caught out on the goal but Dahlkemper’s service and Mewis’ overall performance on the day deserved a goal.
Mewis started her collegiate career further up the field from where she plays now, being more of a creative No. 10 then a box-to-box No. 8 like she plays now, but her talent has not diminished with the positional change. In fact, her overall quality is now even more evident due to this role. Not only is she a vital piece in the air due to her height but her vision makes it easy for those in front of them to make smart runs, knowing that Mewis can and will pick them out.
Many people have spoken about how well Mewis has been playing over the last few years and especially on the USWNT. She is not the only player who can play in that No. 8 position well but what sets her apart from the rest of the roster on the Courage and on the USWNT is her ability to pick out a pass similarly to what NFL quarterbacks do. The argument over who should start for the USWNT between Mewis and Lindsey Horan in that box-to-box midfield role comes down to minute details, but for me, Mewis has all the tools in her locker to edge out Horan and it seems as though Jill Ellis agreed with me as evidenced by the latter stages of the Women’s World Cup this year.
During the final group stage match against Sweden (from 1:44 to 1:48), Mewis picks up the ball in space, drives forward and takes four defenders with her. She had the easy pass of Mallory Pugh out wide to her right but knowing that she had dragged defenders out of position, cut the ball through with a trickier pass to Carli Lloyd for a gilt-edged chance. That eye for a pass and awareness of where she is on the field as well as where her teammates are shows you just how high Mewis’ soccer IQ is.
Whether it’s a long raking cross-field pass or a short one-two with a teammate to keep the movement going, Mewis is capable of it all and she has the ability to skip away from pressure as well, which makes her the complete midfielder. Whenever Mewis is not on the field, especially for the Courage, their passing game becomes more direct, with players opting to put the ball over the top of the backline for their pacy strikers to race on to but with Mewis around, the Courage can afford to slow down their game, play shorter passes and then release the likes of Debinha, Lynn Williams, et al into spaces that defenders have been pulled out of due to Mewis’ tempo.
By also recognising when to step and win the ball quickly for her team as linked above from 0:00 to 0:09, Mewis shows an ability to read the flow of the game and when to use her tactical awareness to gain an advantage for her team. The goalkeeping may have been dubious on her effort but the overall play to not only win the ball back but go for goal as well from that far out shows that Mewis is confident in her ability to find the back of the net from any range.
Mewis doesn’t ignore her defensive duties either. As mentioned before, her height helps her teams defend set pieces and she more likely than not wins balls in midfield due to that height difference. That alone doesn’t exemplify her defensive ability as she can also read the game well and gets into positions to stop passes and/or players from becoming more dangerous for her team.
Mewis picked up her third NWSL championship this past weekend and this past summer, helped the USWNT to their third World Cup title. At 27, she is in the prime of her career, yet it feels like she still can raise her game even more. With the level of play she’s already shown on the biggest of stages, fans and teammates alike can live with the expectation of Mewis continuing to dominate midfields. Not many in the women’s game can claim that kind of reputation but with the rate of her development, don’t be too surprised to see Mewis being talked about in the same breath as other Ballon d’Or winners in the future.