On Monday evening in Herriman, Utah the North Carolina Courage eased their way past Sky Blue FC 2-0 to post a near perfect preliminary round record. Paul Riley’s squad have won all 4 of their games, scoring 7 and conceding only 1. Such is the nature of the winning mentality within this club, that 1 conceded doesn’t quite make this a perfect preliminary round. And that really says it all.
Winning is everything to this team. Paul Riley has always been very open about having something of an underdog mentality. A 'them vs. us' buy in, which is a tried and tested method of conjuring camaraderie, but this only takes you so far. The underdog narrative sort of loses its impetus when, well, you stop being the underdog.
That's when you typically see the whole 'us vs. them' ideology begins to fall apart. Why do you think Jose Mourinho never lasts more than a couple of years? Players get tired of it, and eventually division is caused. Where Riley has gotten it right, is he has continued the demand for physical excellence that this sort of siege mentality creates. Whilst simultaneously telling his players that they are no longer the underdog. And they know it. They enter every contest as favourites. The 'No Finish Line' branding epitomises everything this team is about. Riley demands that his team be the fittest one on the field, both physically and mentally. Boy, does it show.
The Courage were 15-4-5 in the 2019 regular season, as they bulldozed their way to a second consecutive NWSL Championship title. Couple that together with the 17-6-1 record from 2018, and it’s easy to see why the word 'dynasty' gets thrown around a fair bit. This winning mentality and unrelenting quest for physical excellence has been combined with some darn good footballers. This is why the North Carolina Courage will go on to lift the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup, and probably the NWSL Championship (if the season is able to resume safely before the year is out).
This team is just a cut above the rest of the league. And in all honesty, I can’t see anyone else coming close to stopping them. They are littered with world class talent all over the pitch. Their stout defensive record is easy to understand, when you consider they have the unflappable Stephanie Labbé in goal. And in front of her the experienced central defensive 'Abby' duo in mses Dahlkemper and Erceg. They also have, arguably, 2 of the best full-backs in the world; Jalene Daniels (I know, I know) and Crystal Dunn.
This all-star back 5, alongside the erstwhile Glasgow City player Denise O’Sullivan and Sam Mewis, provides the perfect springboard for the team’s dearth of attacking talent. Debinha and Lynn Williams have terrorised opposition defenders in the absence of Jessica McDonald. Can you honestly argue against them winning this thing? I can’t. And I’m not even a North Carolina supporter. My heart is purple.
You have to say the draw works in their favour too. First up is a beleaguered Portland Thorns outfit, who are sans Tobin Heath. And possibly the influential Lindsey Horan. Assuming they get through that tie unscathed they will face the winners of the Houston Dash (1-2-1) vs Utah Royals (1-2-1). Both are good teams in their own right, but I don’t see either having enough about them to see off the Courage.
All that being said, the knockout stages of this tournament are all set to serve up a delightful feast of NWSL soccer. So without further ado let’s take a look at the quarter final match-ups, and see if my predictions are any more or less more valuable than a Pride stan:
Houston Dash vs Utah
As such, this is how I see the rest of the tournament panning out. The Houston Dash, despite a promising start have faltered in their last two games falling to both the Spirit and Sky Blue. I covered their clash with Sky Blue, and was very disappointed with their performance. Rachel Daly looked totally isolated in a toothless Houston attack.
The Royals are a far less fearsome prospect without Christen Press. Despite this they were unlucky in their defeat to the Reign. This defeat preceded a narrow 0-1 reversal to the Red Stars. With Amy Rodriguez still set to lead the attack Utah find their shooting boots and take this 1-0.
Washington Spirit vs Sky Blue
The Spirit will be hoping Rose Lavelle is back to full fitness for this game. Sky Blue will be hoping she isn’t. The Spirit laboured to 1-0 win over the Dash in their last outing, whilst the Sky Blue were North Carolina’s latest victims. Neither is coming in to this in particularly great form. That being said, if Lavelle is fit, I can see Washington taking this 2-1.
OL Reign vs Chicago Red Stars
The OL Reign have yet to get going in this tournament, and yesterday’s draw with Portland was a particularly drab affair. They just aren’t the same team when Megan Rapinoe isn’t with them. Chicago meanwhile triumphed 1-0 over Utah, courtesy of a late Casey Short strike. Chicago advances 1-0
North Carolina Courage vs Portland Thorns
You may have already guessed who I’m tipping here. Portland just aren’t the same team in this tournament. Missing star players and their partisan fanbase the Thorns have wilted in the Utah sun. The Courage, meanwhile, are just beginning to hit their stride. Comfortable 3-0 win for Paul Riley’s team.
By Dan Berridge