North Carolina Courage Preview: Can they win the NWSL again?

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North Carolina Courage
ORLANDO, FL — JUNE 30: North Carolina Courage goalkeeper Katelyn Rowland (0) during the soccer match between the Orlando Pride and the NC Courage on June 30, 2018 at Orlando City Stadium in Orlando FL. (Photo by Joe Petro/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Editorial (April 13, 2019) — The North Carolina Courage have done nothing but exerted dominance since their arrival in the National Women’s Soccer League.

The Courage, which used to be the Western New York Flash before their move down south, retained most of their roster. North Carolina also retained their coach, Paul Riley. In their first season, in 2017, the Courage made it to the NWSL Championship. If fans count the time the Courage were formerly the Western New York Flash, this would be the second-straight championship season.

North Carolina Courage Preview: Can they win the NWSL again?

However, if fans don’t count that, the Courage still found their way in back-to-back finals. Last season, North Carolina dominated the league, only losing one match. The Courage returned to the NWSL Championship game, defeating the Portland Thorns to lift the trophy.

This season, North Carolina primarily returns the same roster. However, there have certainly been some upgrades and bolstering for depth. For example, Stephanie Labbé joined the goalkeeping unit after Sabrina D’Angelo elected to leave the club for Europe.

Can North Carolina exceed already high expectations? Is this the year that North Carolina can keep an unbeaten streak throughout the entire NWSL season? Here are our three biggest questions for the Courage this year.

What is Katelyn Rowland role?

Katelyn Rowland doesn’t get enough credit.

I’m not signaling out Paul Riley here. Riley has always been a fan of using a two goalkeeper system. It doesn’t matter who the goalkeeper is. However, in the last three seasons, no matter how much he wants to use the two-keeper system, he always sticks with Katelyn Rowland in a long run.

She was in goal for the last two NWSL Championship matches she was part of. Rowland makes great saves and continues to be consistent. However, much to my frustration, she never gets calls up to international duty for the United States.

This season, Rowland sees herself in another two-goalkeeper roster competition. Stephanie Labbé is a solid goalkeeper with great experience. She featured for the Washington Spirit for two seasons after starting her career in Europe. Labbé even featured for the men’s club of Calgary Foothills WFC.

Labbé’s inclusion on the roster will certainly help the team. However, it’s important for Riley to not just push Rowland out of the way. Yes, Labbé is a great goalkeeper who is in the national team picture for Canada.

Labbé will likely be going to the World Cup this summer. However, it would be disrespectful to Rowland’s talents to just play her when Labbé is away on international duty. She’s a solid year-round player. Labbé isn’t going to the bench full-time for Rowland. However, there needs to be rotation in plan.

And, when the season really gets going, if one goalkeeper has the hot hand over the other, that’s who needs to start consistently.

Does North Carolina have the best front three?

This is a simple answer: Yes.

Lynn Williams continues to knock in goal after goal for the North Carolina Courage. Her 14 goals were tied for second-most in the NWSL last year. Williams continues to get ignored by Jill Ellis for U.S. Women’s National Team duty. However, her counterpart Jessica McDonald has been receiving call ups.

But, for McDonald, she doesn’t have a permanent spot with the national team. There’s a large question mark hanging over McDonald’s name on the World Cup roster sheet. That could even be said for McCall Zerboni, who made the last two rosters but has received minimal playing time.

Crystal Dunn is a clear-cut option for the World Cup roster. While Ellis continues to play her out of position on the national team — Dunn has been featuring as a left-back defender for the USWNT — she does excellent up top for North Carolina. Riley doesn’t listen to Ellis. He isn’t controlled by Ellis.

He’ll play her where he wants to play her — and it’s working.

North Carolin also has a solid backup in Kristen Hamilton. What advantage that Hamilton has is not just good goal-scoring techniques, but also a good chemistry with her teammates. She’s been teammates with Williams for almost her whole career and spent three seasons with McDonald.

North Carolina’s front-line is going to be scary good this season. Even if Dunn and McDonald both make the World Cup roster, the front line shouldn’t miss a beat.

Can the Courage win the whole thing again?

Another answer with another simple question: Yes.

Paul Riley will forever have the belief that his side is the underdog. However, with a roster full of depth and national team talent, Riley doesn’t realize how good he has it. It doesn’t hurt to keep his players humble and make them work hard. The Courage will miss key pieces during the World Cup, of course. However, the amount of players they’ll be missing is almost similar to Portland.

The Courage have the opportunity to make history by creating an unbeaten season. They came close to it last year, but fell to the Utah Royals by one goal.

North Carolina certainly has the talent to win the NWSL again.

Last Word: North Carolina finishes in first

It’s not going to be easy to win or draw every single match this season. However, I think North Carolina has the potential to do it. With a roster this stacked and with depth that Riley finds like diamonds in the rough, this will be a good year for the Courage.

North Carolina is going to finish on top again. Don’t be surprised if they lift another NWSL Championship trophy at the end of the season. There’s a dynasty building in Cary, North Carolina.

 

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