NWSL Week 7 ended on a banger.
The defending champions North Carolina Courage lost 2-0 on Memorial Day on the road at Reign FC. The result marks their second loss of the season. For most teams, that’s not too bad. For the Courage, who have now lost more games in seven weeks in 2019 than in all of 2018, this undoubtedly has some fans reaching for the panic button.
It’s not just losses; NC hasn’t actually a won a single game in May, losing to Chicago, tying the Royals, and getting held to zero goals in their tie with Sky Blue FC. Yes, that Sky Blue FC.
Trying to sort out what’s going on with North Carolina in terms of the bigger picture requires a deep dive. For now, though, let’s look at this specific game, and how North Carolina came up short.
Katelyn Rowland Had An Awful Day
There’s really no getting around that. I don’t want to be unfair or unkind to Rowland, but the first 15 minutes or so of the game might have been the worst stretch of goalkeeping I’ve seen in NWSL so far this season. RFC had some tentative forward movement in the opening minutes and Rowland, seemingly eager to come off her line for everything, simply didn’t know how to deal with it.
The first goal wasn’t Rowland’s fault, per se— a long-range header from near the edge of the box, sailing into the upper 90, would’ve beaten a lot of keepers. But she was also sloppy in the build-up, and, again, was wobbly in the 12-ish minutes before.
The entire first half was dreadful for her. She managed to recover a little bit for the second half— right up until the 86th minute, when she came way off her line to snuff out Shea Groom and... failed.
Spilled balls. Bad positioning. Needing to be bailed out by teammates several times. All in all, a definite burn-the-tape kind of day for Rowland.
RFC Won The Physical Contest
For most of the big stats— possession, shots on goal, etc.— the two teams were roughly even. But there’s another story there.
Reign FC committed 12 fouls on the day, while the Courage were whistled for nine. RFC also tallied 67 duels won (compared for 59 for NC) and won 18 tackles (versus 13 for the Courage).
RFC’s direct confrontation shut down the Courage’s biggest producers. Lynn Williams had one shot all game— and it was off-target. Leah Pruitt fared a little better with three shots on goal (plus one blocked shot). Merritt Mathias had a shot on goal midway through the second half, and Abby Erceg scored from close range near the end of regulation. That’s it. North Carolina’s attack was stifled all game, thanks to Reign FC’s willingness to come at them head-on. They couldn’t pry the game open through crosses (22!) either, and with the middle a no-fly-zone, they had to scratch one back through a defender. When you compare to earlier stats when Sam Mewis and Crystal Dunn were available, like their 4-1 whumping against Houston, the shot production was much better; NC is definitely going through a big adjustment period without their usual spinal support.
(As an aside: if you get a chance to rewatch the game, keep an eye on the one-on-one battles between Jess Fishlock and McCall Zerboni.)
In short: Reign FC went for North Carolina’s throat and kept their biggest attacking threats locked down. And it worked.
The Aura Has Been Punctured
I don’t usually like talking about mentality in tactical analysis; unless you’re actually in the locker room, most of that line of discourse is purely speculative. None of us actually knows what’s going on in the players’, or Paul Riley’s, heads.
That said — North Carolina weren’t in great form heading into the match, and now have two draws and two losses from their last four games. For a team that was nearly invincible in 2018, it’s not hard to imagine this stretch of results having an impact on the mood and mindset in the Courage locker room. It’s also having an impact on their opposition — the fear and apprehension teams used to feel when they’d face off against the Courage is dissipating. Opponents must now feel like they’ve got a chance.
It’s a rare team that can get a whole league to fear them. Once you lose that, it’s really hard to get it back.
North Carolina face last-place Orlando this weekend, which should give them an opportunity to get a win and slow the bleeding. If they can’t get a result, this team is very much in trouble. One might even say they’re...underdogs.