Since winning the NWSL Championship in 2016 as the Western New York Flash before relocating to North Carolina, the North Carolina Courage have formed the most dominant dynasty in women’s professional club soccer in the United States of all time. Since that win, they have won two additional NWSL Championships and 3 NWSL League Shields. They have also won the Women’s International Champion’s Cup against other top international clubs. However, many players have since departed. Sam Mewis and Abby Dahlkemper left for Manchester City, Crystal Dunn was traded to the Portland Thorns, Heather O’Reilly and Jaelene Daniels retired, McCall Zerboni was traded to the then Sky Blue FC, and Steph Labbe departed for FC Rosengard. The Courage signed or traded for replacements, but few offer the same level of quality. Due to these departures, many experts believe this team will not be as dominant in 2021.
A strong spine still exists in Abby Erceg, Denise O’Sullivan, and Debinha. The team still boasts a strong corps of veteran forwards in Lynn Williams, Jessica McDonald, and Kristen Hamilton. Merritt Mathias is a NWSL starting caliber defender who has returned from injury. The club traded for Casey Murphy, who some have tagged as a possible USWNT starting goalkeeper down the road. Carson Pickett arrived via trade, and with Paul Riley’s tutelage could elevate her game to Jaelene Daniel’s quality. 24 year-old forward Hailie Mace dominated the Swedish league and was a promising USWNT center back prospect under Jill Ellis. Angharad James signed from Reading, and she has been one of the best defensive midfielders in the FA WSL this season.
The North Carolina Courage underwent a significant change in personnel, but they are still a top contender for the 2021 Challenge Cup title. Additionally, Brazilian head coach Pia Sundhage recently revealed that Debinha will remain with her club and not take part in the April international window. With the 2019 Championship MVP available for all 4 matches, North Carolina’s chances of advancing to the Challenge Cup final dramatically increases.
By Tim Antoniewicz