NC Courage adjusting to roster overhaul

Coach Paul Riley is taking a long view as his team waits for players to return from injury and other commitments

Defender Kaleigh Kurtz and the North Carolina Courage are competing in the NWSL Challenge Cup ahead of the 2021 season that will begin May 15. (Adam Hunger / AP Photo)

The North Carolina Courage beat expansion Racing Louisville 3-2 on Monday to stay alive for a spot in the National Women’s Soccer League Challenge Cup tournament.

But that’s not the goal coach Paul Riley has in mind as he works to get his team back into championship form.

While getting to the Challenge Cup final and bringing home the trophy would be nice, Riley’s sights are set on the 24-game regular season that begins May 15 with an eye toward repeating the league title the Courage won in 2019.

“I said last week it’s a work in progress,” said the veteran coach from Liverpool, England, whose team is 2-1-0 in the Challenge Cup with one game remaining in the group stage — Saturday against the Orlando Pride in a pandemic-limited sellout at WakeMed Soccer Park. “We have four players still to come in down the road, plus two or three major injuries. So I think you’ll see half a change in the lineup by the time we get into midseason. But I’m still happy with the team.”

Despite returning a veteran core that includes U.S. National Team member Lynn Williams, Brazilian ace Debinha and captain Amy Erceg, the Courage has undergone a significant roster reboot since last summer’s run to the Challenge Cup semifinals.

Gone is world-class striker Crystal Dunn, who was traded to Portland in a three-way deal that allowed her to be closer to her husband, who is the Thorns’ head trainer. So is Abby Dahlkemper, a 2018 NWSL Defender of the Year finalist who signed to play for Manchester City of the English women’s league.

Complicating matters is a back injury that will keep fellow defender Erceg out at least until the start of the regular season and perhaps longer.

With Jaelene Daniels also having retired and Addisyn Merrick being lost in the expansion draft, many of the players on the field are still just getting to know one another let alone learning how to play together.

Especially on defense, where Merritt Mathias is back after missing the past 18 months with an ACL tear, Carson Pickett has been acquired in a trade with Orlando, and several others have been moved around into different positions and roles.

“When you look at our back six in previous years versus our back six coming into this season … the back six is looking very new,” said midfielder Meredith Speck, one of the returning starters. “Everyone is doing their best to make it as easy as possible, and I think we’re definitely starting to find our rhythm.

“This week, in particular, we’ve been going over a lot more of our tactical issues. (They’re) things that feel like basics, but when you’re working with new people, simple communication that may be felt more natural in the past is now very much important because people are still figuring out the tendencies of the people around them.”

Although the Courage’s defense was better in Monday’s win than it was in its previous effort — a 4-2 loss to Gotham FC — Speck and her teammates still have plenty of work left to do.

The team has given up at least two goals in each of its three games thus far in 2021. That’s a major departure from last year’s Challenge Cup in which the Courage conceded only one goal in its three group stage games before being eliminated in the quarterfinals with a 1-0 loss to Portland.

And yet, Riley said he’s not planning to make any drastic tactical changes in an attempt to shore things up, preferring to rely on an explosive offense led by Jessica McDonald, along with Debinha and Kristen Hamilton — each of whom scored a goal on Monday — to carry the Courage until all its key players are back in action.

“I’ve been going about it in the same renegade style that we always play,” Riley said. “Without Abby Erceg and Abby Dahlkemper in the back, we probably need to be a little more conservative in the midfield and a little more conservative with the fullback situation.

“I haven’t been because I see the big picture, and the big picture is probably three, four, five, six months from now. So I want to make sure the fullbacks play the way we want them to play. But certainly, with our center back situation not the way it should be, we have to be a little more conservative. We’ve been caught in transition a lot, and it’s something we’ve been working on.”

While Riley acknowledged that the defense “has to get better if we’re going to get to the heights of the last few years,” newcomer Pickett is confident that it eventually will.

“The good thing about the culture here is that if you have a good culture and a good locker room, you can quickly adjust on the field,” Pickett said. “There are new players, but the chemistry between everyone is really good and I think we’re going to continue to get better and better.”