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Can North Carolina continue to dominate NWSL in 2019?

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Will Paul Riley’s tactics be enough without his key pieces on the board?

The North Carolina Courage utterly dominated NWSL in 2018. Numbers sometimes lie, but NC’s certainly do not: a 17-1-6 record, with 53 GF and 17 GA, for by far the highest goal differential in the league, as 2nd-place Portland had a GD of 12. NC soared to the top of the table with 57 points, while once again Portland struggled along in their wake with 42.

NC wasn’t untouchable; there were lots of close results, like a back-and-forth 4-3 win over the Orlando Pride in May, a tough 1-1 tie with Chicago in August, and their only loss of the season, a 1-0 defeat to the Utah Royals in June.

But they did seem unstoppable, only really faltering in early June with that loss following a 1-1 tie against Houston. And even then, they promptly accelerated again with a 4-1 win over the Reign, a 3-0 win over the Pride, and a 4-1 win over Chicago, for 11 goals in three games over 12 days.

Will the 2019 season be the same? NC as the overleveled, overequipped player blasting through the game and squashing the final boss to take the championship? Or, with the World Cup snatching up everyone’s internationals, will they be in the same bucket as everyone else? Let’s look at the factors that helped them in 2018.

Core members of the team

It really can’t be overstated what a power duo Sam Mewis and McCall Zerboni make. The two of them can absolutely smother just about any midfield space they’re put into, and while you’re busy trying desperately to break free of them, Crystal Dunn and Debinha are wreaking havoc on your wings or destroying your center because Paul Riley played Crystal Dunn as the #10 of your nightmares for most of the season. NC also had Denise O’Sullivan available as a super capable Zerboni backup who could also slide to the wing, and they also had Heather O’Reilly available off the bench. Heather O’Reilly! Easily a starting player on many other NWSL teams, but off the bench for NC!

NC also had a stingy defense, led by central defender Abby Erceg, who started and played in all 24 games, and managed to bank two goals and two assists of her own. Erceg formed a great partnership with Abby Dahlkemper for the best GA in the league in 2018.

And then up top there were Jess McDonald and Lynn Williams as a dynamic attacking pair, combining for 21 of NC’s 53 goals. Williams, McDonald, and Dunn were three of the 10 shot-takers in the league in 2018, with Williams taking 93 shots over 21 games, compared to Sam Kerr at #2 who took 88 shots over 19 games. That brings us to...

Paul Riley’s coaching

The Courage weren’t particularly efficient about scoring - also consider that Kerr took fewer shots over fewer games but still scored more goals overall than Williams, 16 to her 14 - but there’s definitely something to be said about just hammering a team with shots until something goes in because your setup allows you to do so mostly with impunity. And that’s down to Paul Riley’s tactics and coaching. Look at these shot maps from three close games - 1-1 against Chicago, 4-3 against Orlando, and 1-1 against the Reign.

Anxiety-making if you’re not a Courage fan, no? The Courage can shoot and recover, shoot and recover, until your motor is sputtering and the check engine light is dinging really insistently because you’ve pushed your luck 100 miles too many. Their press was enough to leave teams looking like they’d been professionally dry-cleaned with extra starch.

Let’s also talk about that Crystal-Dunn-10 thing, because it worked like aces. Dunn said around the championship last year that Riley empowered her to play the 10 the way she saw fit, which meant not acting as a pure playmaker, but as someone with a lot of discretion to attack from almost anywhere on the field. Here’s Dunn’s passing from NC’s 4-1 win in June over the Reign, a team with a similarly stingy defense, and from the semifinal against Chicago.

Against the Reign, she had some ill-fated medium range balls out of midfield, but Dunn is everywhere all the time, interweaving her play to bamboozle defenses or picking out key forward passes or even working hard to recover on defense, something she’s said she focuses on from a particularly technical perspective since she considers it a weakness relative to her attacking strengths. Against Chicago, she’s working the flanks more, setting up those key crosses. But she’s clearly capable of working anywhere and everywhere on the field.

Riley created a team with an incredible spine of players that was capable of pressing hard for a full 90 every game, all season long, and it paid off handsomely when they took the championship 3-0 against Portland and didn’t look particularly bothered while doing it even without Zerboni available due to injury (sorry Portland).

Mental narrative and team buy-in

If you got tired of hearing the word “underdog” during the 2018 coverage of the Courage, well, the team sure didn’t. It didn’t matter if NC was running away with points at the top of the table; inevitably, Paul Riley would sell his team as a gritty contender with everything on the line instead of the juggernaut all the other teams lost to in varying states of exasperation. And to his credit, the player buy-in on this psychological stratagem worked. The team looked cohesive and competitive no matter what, with chemistry to spare regardless of who was in or out of the starting XI. So who cares if you could get sloshed playing drink-every-time-he-says-underdog; we’re pretty sure Courage players are sleeping snug with their championship medals under their pillows.

What changes and what doesn’t for 2019?

Players are leaving

This will be the toughest hurdle by far. Almost certain to be leaving are Abby Dahlkemper and Abby Erceg, the solid core of the defensive line, as well as Sam Mewis and Crystal Dunn. That’s a huge chunk of NC’s spine gone. Highly likely to be leaving as well are Stephanie Labbé, Debinha, and McCall Zerboni, while Heather O’Reilly will also miss some of the season as a World Cup commentator for Fox. There’s still plenty of experience left on the team, with Jaelene Hinkle, Merritt Mathias, Denise O’Sullivan, Jess McDonald, and Lynn Williams around, assuming McDonald doesn’t beat the odds and make the USWNT roster. Julie King might also finally play in NC colors, and she’s got plenty of experience under her belt. But they’ll also be trying to integrate draft picks like Hailey Harbison and Lauren Milliet, asking a lot from rookies who, completely understandably, will feel pressure to keep a tradition of excellence going.

Possibly the biggest adjustment here will be figuring out how to fill in the gaps Dunn leaves behind. O’Sullivan may be asked to help carry some of those responsibilities, as well as #14 overall draft pick Lauren Milliet. Milliet ran roughshod over other players at Colorado College, and will now have to face the classic test of adjusting to the speed and intensity of the pro game, particularly coming out of a less high-profile conference like Mountain West.

No more underdog label

Paul Riley admitted with good humor after the 2018 NWSL championship that they would have to let go of the “underdog” narrative. But that doesn’t mean he won’t find a similar psychological motivator; in the 2019 college draft he picked players (see Harbison and Milliet above) that are likely to mesh well with his work-hard ethos and deeply insular team mentality.

Riley isn’t going anywhere

As much has been said about the pressure on rookies and remaining players, the responsibility for continuity lies heavily on Paul Riley. He’s shown he’s a dab hand at picking players who respond to his coaching and perpetuate his high-pressure style of play. The execution may not be there as much, but Riley knows how to get teams to implement his concepts. And it’s not like other teams won’t largely be in the same boat, trying to fill in the gaps with temporary signings, bench players, and rookies. Teams that are able to maintain some kind of consistency will be the ones who get the points in the World Cup period.

Conclusion? Riley probably should have saved the underdog label for 2019. Yes, the Courage will probably be one of the more cohesive teams out there without their leadership and key playmakers. But they’re losing playmakers like Dunn and Mewis, which leaves huge gaps that honestly can’t be filled reasonably by any one-to-one substitution. It’s going to take a concerted effort from multiple players or else a big step up from someone to maintain the level of performance from last year, and that’s no shame at all on NC; rather it’s more of a compliment to the way Riley has stuffed his team with incredible, world-beater talent and gotten them smoothly matched up in his preferred system. And without them, the team will actually be the gritty contender Riley drew a picture of last year, which will be fun to watch for fans of other teams in the league.

What do you think? Will the Courage still run away with points at the top of the table this season? Let us know in the comments!