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North Carolina Courage deservedly heavy favorites at the NWSL Challenge Cup

If you’re looking for reasons to doubt the defending champs, there aren’t any.

2019 NWSL Championship

The North Carolina Courage is the best team in NWSL. It has been for the last two years, and it is the overwhelming favorite to win the NWSL Challenge Cup.

Yes, anything can happen in a knockout competition, but there is no reason to predict that a team other than the Courage will win. It returns 10 of its preferred starting XI, with only right back Merritt Mathias out due to injury, following a season in which its goal differential was 18 goals better than the second-placed team. That second-placed team, Chicago, lost arguably the best striker in the world in Sam Kerr this offseason.

No one has figured out yet how to solve coach Paul Riley’s box midfield formation. The combination of USWNT stars Sam Mewis and Crystal Dunn, along with 2019 championship game MVP Debinha and team player of the year Denise O’Sullivan, consistently frustrates every opponent. The team’s forwards and central defenders have also made at least one NWSL Best XI in their careers.

And the Courage arguably got better in the offseason. USWNT prospect Hailie Mace joins up after a stint in Sweden, while rookie Ally Watt impressed in Australia during the winter.

Everyone’s trying to figure out how to build a team to beat the Courage in 2021. But at the Challenge Cup, the only team that’s beating the Courage is itself.

Let’s watch a fun player’s highlights

If you’re not familiar with Debinha, please correct that immediately.

Who’s missing?

No one has opted out, but Mathias has not yet recovered fully from a torn ACL. She’s traveling with the team to Utah in order to further her rehab, but Riley doesn’t believe she could have been ready for full game action until September.

Projected lineup

Riley teased a potential different look to me during our conversation, but was unsurprisingly unwilling to reveal it. Regardless, we’re certain to see at least a bit of the classic Courage 4-4-2 box lineup.

Lineup questions

With Matthias out, the right back spot is a bit of an open competition. Cari Roccaro, Ryan Williams, and rookie Addisyn Merrick are all capable of playing in that role if Hailey Harbison needs a rest or doesn’t perform up to expectations.

There are zero questions about the other starters, just what the depth chart looks like behind them.

Mace, notably, will not be playing in the back line. When she was acquired, Riley told reporters at the draft that USWNT coach Vlatko Andonovski wanted her to play in defense, and he would give Mace that opportunity. But after evaluating her in training, Riley has come to the conclusion that Mace’s best role is going to be an attacking one.

“She’s not a defender for me. Her instincts are not defensive,” Riley says about Mace. “She’s great around the net, she’s a great striker of the ball. She’s probably the best finisher on the team to be honest.”

How does the Courage play?

Extremely well? Sorry, it’s just that the team is outrageously good at everything.

Despite having a reputation for playing a very direct style, North Carolina is actually pretty careful with the ball. It’s the third most direct team in the league and plays way more crosses than anyone else, but its passing percentage is also third in the league, according to StatsBomb. Despite the club’s heavy reliance on crosses — which produce lower-percentage chances than other types of passes — the Courage lead the league in Expected Goals. The volume and quality of its crossing is such that it manages to defy conventional wisdom in this regard.

Teams have yet to figure out how to defend against the front two of Williams and McDonald pulling wide, while the two attacking midfielders Dunn and Debinha make late runs into the box to fill the vacated space. Perhaps its crossing is more effective because the crosses come from unconventional players, and go to unconventional targets.

Defensively, North Carolina is the most aggressive pressing team in NWSL, and it’s not particularly close. It has the fewest opposition passes per defensive action, makes defensive actions farther from its own goal than any other team, and aggressively presses a higher percentage of opposition passes than anyone else.

2nd year players to make a big impact

Hailey Harbison and Lauren Milliet didn’t get any minutes for the Courage in their rookie seasons, but they’re both expected to get plenty of playing time in the NWSL Challenge Cup.

“I was fortunate enough to see Harbison play in the preseason against the Orlando Pride and she really surprised me,” Aaron Bellamy of Dirty South Soccer says about Harbison in 2019. “The ACL tear was a huge blow for the team and she never played during the regular season.”

Riley says that Harbison is now fully fit and in contention to get significant minutes at right back in Matthias’ absence. She was known for her fitness and energy before she got injured, and fits North Carolina’s system perfectly.

Milliet’s emergence is the bigger surprise. Riley says she wasn’t ready to play at the Courage’s level last season, but improved significantly over time.

“She just needed a year,” Riley says. “The pace we play at, the intensity we play at, it’s not easy for young players in their first year. She just wasn’t up to par last year, but now, what a difference.”

In college, Milliet starred for Colorado College and completely outclassed Mountain West opposition on a regular basis. That didn’t exactly prepare her for pro ball.

“She was the kingpin where she played so she wasn’t questioned in any way,” Riley says. “She wasn’t pushed as much as she could have been because, hey, she’s Lauren Milliet, just give her the ball and she’ll do her magic. It’s been a great mental test for her to be like, hey, you’re not a big shot here. You’ve got internationals ahead of you in the lineup. She gets it now.”

Those familiar with Riley might think he’s a bit prone to hyperbole, but he also said that Milliet’s technical ability is comparable to Debinha’s, so that’ll be a very fun thing to watch out for.

This is silly, but a couple stars have room for improvement

I can’t pick out a sneaky, under-the-radar performer for the Courage because there isn’t one. Everyone’s got some kind of individual award or racks up traditional counting stats. So I’m going to be outrageously nitpicky and talk about where two of the best players in NWSL can improve.

Sam Mewis is undeniably one of the best midfielders in NWSL. “She is thoughtful and fearless,” Bellamy says. “I think there are a lot of young players who would question taking a shot from 25 yards out, but she just goes for it. She’s so physically imposing that other midfielders don’t expect her to be able to run away from them on the dribble, but she can just take a little pause, the midfielder backs off a step to block the passing lane, and she goes right by them.”

This is all extremely true! And I know this sounds Galaxy Brain, but I wonder if Mewis could go from being exceptional to the best midfielder in the world by being a bit more conservative?

She wins a lot of tackles, but not a lot of interceptions, so I wonder if she could stand to hold her position more. She has a low passing percentage and high turnover rate because Riley gives her the freedom to make audacious plays, but I also think the Courage might be more effective if she played the safer pass to Dunn or Debinha a bit more often. I apologize for being the fun police.

Lynn Williams is also a USWNT and MVP-caliber player, but fans and coaches alike agree that she needs to improve as a finisher to lock down a national team place.

“The only reason Williams isn’t a lock on the national team already is because her finishing sometimes disappears,” Bellamy says. “Some of the ones she misses are head-scratchers.” Riley adds that “the technical part of her game and finishing is a part she still wants to improve.”

But I think that decision-making around the box is an even more important issue than Williams’ technique.

While Williams gets an incredibly high volume of shots — and assists a ridiculous number of good chances too — she could probably stand to improve her shot locations and take fewer touches in the box. Her Expected Goals per shot are low, and she takes a lot more touches in the box that aren’t shots than other strikers.

Again, I’m nit-picking because this is the best team in the league and possibly in all of women’s soccer. Williams and Mewis could change absolutely nothing about their games and still be among the best players in the world. But if you’re wondering how the Courage could get better, there’s a couple hypotheses.

What’s a successful tournament for the Courage?

Winning, period.

Schedule

Courage vs. Thorns — Saturday, June 27

Spirit vs. Courage — Wednesday, July 1

Courage vs. Red Stars — Sunday, July 5

Sky Blue vs. Courage — Monday, July 13