NWSL Preview: 2018 North Carolina Courage Looking to Build Off Last Season

North Carolina Courage
ORLANDO, FL - OCTOBER 14: North Carolina Courage forward Ashley Hatch (12) shoots past Portland Thorns FC defender Emily Menges (4) during the NWSL soccer Championship match between the North Carolina Courage and Portland Thorns on October 14th, 2017 at Orlando City Stadium in Orlando, FL.(Photo by Andrew Bershaw/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Editorial (March 23, 2018) — If any new clubs that should enter the league want to have a successful first season, the North Carolina Courage’s 2017 season would be the perfect blueprint.

The Courage were the new kids on the block in the NWSL last season. After it was announced that the Western New York Flash — who had won the NWSL Championship in 2016 — were folding, the Courage popped up and welcomed their players with open arms.

Stationed at WakeMed Soccer Park, the North Carolina Courage had one of the best inaugural seasons in women’s soccer history.

2018 North Carolina Courage NWSL Preview

The team made it all the way to the NWSL Championship match and held a close game with the Portland Thorns, only losing 1-0. However, the Courage did end the season with some hardware.

The Courage were the top team in the NWSL, which won them the Supporter’s Shield.

Led by a strong attacking group of Jessica McDonald, Lynn Williams and Samantha Mewis, some diamonds in the rough showed up for North Carolina.

McCall Zerboni made her name known around the league while Ashley Hatch won Rookie of the Year honors over players like Jane Campbell, Rose Lavelle, and Mallory Pugh.

The Courage had a consistent and strong defense, with Abby Dahlkemper and Abby Erceg holding down the backline, alongside Jaelene Hinkle and Taylor Smith.

In goal, Katelyn Rowland kept a low profile throughout the whole season. She doesn’t have a name as big as Adrianna Franch, Campbell, Ashlyn Harris or Alyssa Naeher, but she got the job done. In 2017, Rowland appeared in 16 matches.

Her backup is Sabrina D’Angelo, a Canadian goalkeeper. The two return again this year as the only goalkeepers on the roster.

Other off-season additions include drafting Julie King and Allysha Chapman in the Dispersal Draft, due to the Boston Breakers folding. Also, the Courage traded for Merritt Mathias of the Seattle Reign.

Player to Watch

The biggest acquisition of the off-season was Crystal Dunn.

After spending some time over in England with Chelsea Ladies, Dunn returns to the NWSL. She made 15 appearances in England, scoring three goals.

Before jetting overseas, Dunn began her career with the Washington Spirit. She made 58 appearances in three seasons, scoring 19 goals. She was named the league MVP in 2015 and won the NWSL Golden Boot award for her league-leading 15 goals.

Dunn’s rights were owned by the Spirit, but they agreed on a trade with North Carolina. In return, Washington obtained Hatch and defender Smith.

Dunn is coming to a North Carolina team that has a ton of depth in the forward position. Head Coach Paul Riley certainly won’t pull a Jill Ellis — head coach of the U.S. Women’s National Team — and force Dunn to feature on defense.

However, he will have to make room for Dunn between McDonald and Williams.

Right now, it seems like Dunn will fill the spot that Hatch left.

Thoughts on Head Coach Paul Riley

The smartest thing that the North Carolina Courage managed to do when bringing pieces from the Western New York Flash down south was also bringing the head coach.

Paul Riley enters his second season with the Courage and fifth NWSL season overall. He previously coached the Portland Thorns before going to New York.

Riley made the fantastic decision of drafting Hatch and bred her into the fantastic rookie that she was. Now, fans are hoping the same magic can work again in reviving the NWSL career of Dunn.

Also, Riley will serve as the first professional coach to Frannie Crouse.

Riley drafted Crouse in the recent NWSL College Draft. A product out of Penn State University, Crouse is a forward and will learn from Riley, but also Dunn, McDonald, Williams and Kristen Hamilton.

Riley took the Flash to the promised land in 2016 with their NWSL Championship win. He has all the tools in place to get the Courage back to the final round.

Off-Season Losses

The biggest off-season loss was Rookie of the Year Hatch.

To top Pugh, Lavelle, Campbell and Ifeoma Onumonu, Hatch had to be on top of her game. Throughout the entire 2017 season, Hatch was a dark horse.

Hatch was only a semi-regular fixture on the pitch for Riley, mainly coming in as a substitute early on in the season. However, she began to start more matches as the season went on.

Hatch finished her 2017 rookie season with 22 appearances, 13 starts, seven goals and one assist. She totaled 1,200 minutes with the Courage.

She was rewarded with a preliminary spot on the U.S. Women’s National Team’s SheBelieves Cup roster. However, she did not make the final cut.

During the off-season, Hatch spent time in Australia, tuning her craft with Melbourne City F.C., and ended up winning the league.

Dunn is a great asset to fill Hatch’s spot. However, Hatch now joins a talented — and young — Washington Spirit team. Head Coach Jim Gabarra needs to make sure he doesn’t bury her since she’s on a roster with Pugh, Lavelle and Andi Sullivan.

Season Prediction

It was hard to pick between the Orlando Pride and North Carolina Courage on who would make the championship match against the Utah Royals.

While I have Utah winning the whole league, the Courage are stuck in third place in my “bracket.”

North Carolina has all the right tools in place, and their balance between defensive and offensive power is sharp. However, I think that the learning curve of adjusting Dunn, McDonald, and Williams together might come to haunt the team.

However, I wouldn’t be angry if North Carolina proved me wrong and won the whole thing. After seeing the tears on Samantha Mewis’ face last season after losing, I’d root for North Carolina if the made the final again.

Just as long as they’re not up against Utah.

2018 NWSL Previews:
Chicago Red Stars
Houston Dash
Orlando Pride
Portland Thorns
Seattle Reign
Sky Blue FC
Utah Royals
Washington Spirit

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