Team Name/Mascot: North Carolina Courage
Head Coach: Paul Riley
Fun facts: Most disliked team in the league. Two reasons. 1. Because they're so good and keep winning. 2. Because Jaelene Hinkle refused to wear the rainbow jersey whilst in the national team due to her faith, causing accusations of homophobia.
2019 Record: Winner, winner, chicken dinner. Won the double, coming out top of the table and taking the premiership by being totally dominant at the end of the season with some big wins. They then won the finals series, solidly beating Seattle Reign 4-1 in the semis and thrashing Chicago in the final 4-0. It was a commanding final series for the Courage, their second in a row.
National team players + Background info:
This team is loaded with national team players. They can literally field a complete team made up of only national team players. Sounds a bit like Olympique Lyonnais. It is.
From the USWNT we have, in no particular order, the current serving members, Abby Dahlkemper (61 caps), Crystal Dunn (104 caps), Samantha Mewis (67 caps), Jessica McDonald (19 caps) and recent re-promotion, Lynn Williams (28 caps). Other players with USWNT caps are Kristen Hamilton (1 cap), Jaelene Daniels (nee Hinkle - she got married over the break) (8 caps), Merritt Mathias (1 cap), and Hailie Mace (3 caps) who is yet to play a match in the NWSL, returning from the Swedish league.
From other national teams we have Abby Erceg from New Zealand with the best arms and abs in the game (141 caps), Stephanie Labbe from Canada (70 caps), Denise O'Sullivan from Ireland (77 caps), Debinha from Brazil (97 caps) and the just signed Lindsay Agnew from Canada (14 caps).
Players You Should Know:
Two players of interest are Hailie Mace and Ally Watt. Hailie played with the USWNT while still in college. She was drafted to Sky Blue last year as overall second draft pick but turned it down and went and played the end of the season at Melbourne City in Australia and then a full season at FC Rosengård in Sweden. She's a defender with a penchant for a scoring goals.
Ally was the sixth draft pick in this year's draft and was also able to go to Melbourne City for the end of their premiership winning season. She played five games and scored three goals there. She's fast. Like Christen Press and Lynn Williams fast and, much like both of them, can anticipate where to be to score with ease. She'll give NCC some attacking depth.
Changes in the Off-season: Not a lot of changes for Courage over the off session. If it ain't broke, no need to fix it. Other than the rookies, Hailie and Lindsay are the only new players.
Trades: McCall Zerboni was transferred to Sky Blue and Julia Spetsmark has signed to FC Fleury in France via a stint in Lisbon. Leah Pruitt from last year's draft, was waived and picked up by OL Reign
Draft picks: Three draft picks have signed contracts for the year.
Ally Watt from Texas A&M, Sinclaire Miramontez from the University of Nebraska and Addisyn Merrick from the University of Kansas.
Brianne Folds did not get a contract.
International players brought in with $: There are no new international players other than Lindsay Agnew who is considered a Canadian Federation player. They've got quite enough already really.
Departures and injuries: Major departure from last year was the retirement of legend Heather O'Reilly, who has just given birth to her first child, William.
Merritt Mathias did her ACL towards the end of the season last year. She's on the 45 day Disabled List but must be close to being able to play.
Strengths: this is an extremely experienced team. One of the best in the world. They've played together for a long time and have managed to get some new young talent as well that will be busting to break into the line up. All of their national team players will be available to play in the Cup. They are a very serious contender to win.
Biggest Question Mark: There's no weak link here other than lack of match play that every other team will suffer from. Something to bear in mind is that five players went to the W league over the NWSL off season. Kristen Hamilton, Denise O'Sullivan, Lynn Williams, Ally Watt and Kaleigh Kurtz were all playing from November to February and early March for those in teams in the finals. Most national team players also had Olympic qualifiers around this time too so many in the team have only had three months off, not eight like most players in the NWSL. Only other question will be how they fare at altitude for the first couple of games until they acclimatise.
Preliminary Round Matchups:
June 27 12.30pm EST Portland Thorns
July 01 10.00pm EST Washington Spirit
July 05 12.30pm EST Chicago Red Stars
July 13 10.00pm EST Sky Blue
How fair was their draw?
There's not going to be any easy games in this tournament. With only four preliminary games, they are all must win. Being the reigning champions, they should be favorites to win all their matches but they won't be walk-overs. Their draw was pretty good and the change with the withdrawal of Pride has made it even better.
Preview each of their 4 first games
NCC v Portland Thorns
This is the opening match of the Challenge Cup and is likely to be the most watched. The Thorns made the finals last year but only won one match out of their final six. They also only scored one goal during that period and let in ten. The last time these teams met was at Providence Park in Portland and NCC were embarrassingly dominant, winning 6-0. This was actually the biggest winning margin of the entire season. Thorns have also lost many of their key players like Sonnet, Purce, the Europeans and all the Aussies who have gone to Euro teams. It's also now confirmed Heath won't be playing. They now have Sauerbrunn and stalwarts like Sinc and the Great Horan are still there and will be playing. Thorns will have something to prove but it's unlikely they'll be able to do it. There's big questions over how the team, with so many new members, will perform together. Predicting a solid Courage win.
NCC v Washington Spirit
This is replacing the match against Houston Dash. Was looking forward to the matchup between the Mewis sisters and the possibility of revenge for Mathias' ACL but that can be saved for the finals now.
The last time these teams met, the Spirit were victorious, one of the few teams to beat Courage last year. In the previous two matches there was only a one goal difference in the score lines. Part of that may be due to Aubrey Bledsoe in the goals and she's coming out of a successful W-League season with Sydney FC. Sam Staab and Crystal Thomas also played in Australia so should be fairly match fit and with a strong midfield in Andi Sullivan and Rose Lavelle, this won't be a walkover. Despite a strong roster, it's hard to see The Spirit attack getting through the Courage defence too often. Predicting a close Courage win.
NCC v Chicago Red Stars
Courage did not beat the Red Stars during the regular season last year. Of course that wasn't the case in the final that saw Courage romp it in 4-0. The Red Stars haven't made too many changes over the off season but the main one is the loss of star striker and perennial golden boot winner, Sam Kerr. Sam is now playing with Chelsea and Kealia Watt (nee Ohai) is her replacement up front. Can she recreate the magic that Kerr and Nagasato had? Unlikely. Red Stars defence is still rock solid though with Ertz, Davidson, Short and Brian providing plenty of depth and sparkle but can they score goals? At the end of the day, that's what wins matches. This will probably be Courage's toughest match and will be close but Courage for the win.
NCC v Sky Blue
The Sky Blue roster has had quite a shake up over the off season and was looking to be a vastly improved team from last year where they recorded a draw and two losses against NCC. Unfortunately their two USWNT players, Carli Lloyd and Mal Pugh are both unavailable due to injury. McCall Zerboni will be playing against her old team and it will be interesting to see if Japanese international, Naho Kawasumi, and rookie and Canadian international, Evelyne Viens, can make a difference. While the new Sky Blue line up is solid, they are outclassed by the star power of North Carolina. Courage should win comfortably here.
Where do you expect them to finish?
Unless something goes seriously wrong, it's highly likely North Carolina will win all four matches and go through the finals undefeated to win the Cup. They just look so strong and experienced, it's difficult to see any other team stepping up as a serious contender.
Stephanie Labbé (FED/CAN), Samantha Murphy (nee Leshnak), Katelyn Rowland.
Lindsay Agnew (FED/CAN), Abby Dahlkemper (FED/USA), Jaelene Daniels (nee Hinkle), Abby Erceg, Hailey Harbison, Kaleigh Kurtz, Hailie Mace, Merritt Mathias (45 day DL), Addisyn Merrick (CDP), Sinclair Miramontez (CDP), Ryan Williams.
Debinha (INT), Crystal Dunn (FED/USA), Samantha Mewis (FED/USA), Lauren Milliet, Denise O'Sullivan (INT), Cari Roccaro, Meredith Speck.
Kristen Hamilton, Jessica MacDonald (FED/USA), Ally Watt (CDP), Lynn Williams (FED/USA).
By Kris Goman
Photo Credit: Nikki Flores @ Footy Day Photos