NC Courage chart new course with Nahas

The NWSL team is looking to move past last year’s firing of coach Paul Riley

Sean Nahas, who took over as the North Carolina Courage's coach last year after then-coach Paul Riley was fired amid controversy, starts the 2022 season with his interim tag lifted and a revamped roster. (Gerry Broome / AP Photo)

Charlotte FC celebrated a memorable debut recently with a festive home opener before 74,000 fans at Bank of America Stadium.

But it’s not the only professional soccer club in North Carolina making a fresh start.

Although the North Carolina Courage is an established team with a championship pedigree, it will have a significantly new look this season when it kicks off in the National Women’s Soccer League Challenge Cup tournament on Saturday with a match against Gotham FC at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary.

Gone are established stars Sam Mewis, Lynn Williams and Jessica McDonald, among others. In their place is a collection of newcomers brought in to revamp the roster and reestablish a culture in the aftermath of a controversy that made national headlines.

“There’s a lot of new faces, a lot of change for sure. But I think it’s all for the good of this team,” said midfielder Denise O’Sullivan, who along with Brazilian midfielder Debhina, midfielder Abby Erceg and forward Havana Solaun make up the Courage’s veteran core. “The new girls have come in with a lot of energy, really good quality players, and I think they’ve settled in really well.”

After winning back-to-back championships in 2019-20, the Courage had its season derailed last summer when coach Paul Riley was fired after allegations of sexual misconduct with former players became public.

Numerous changes were made as a result of the scandal, most notably being the elevation of interim coach Sean Nahas to permanent status. The team also hired Duke graduate Francie Gottsegen as its new president.

It then made several offseason roster moves that brought in promising youngsters Kiki Pickett and former UNC star Brianna Pinto in trades, New Zealand defender Katie Bowen in an international signing and forward Jorian Baucom off waivers from NWSL rival Racing Louisville.

The Courage also brought back two former team members in goalie Katelyn Rowland, who was also dealt away last season, and defender Jaelene Daniels, who retired from soccer in 2020 after the birth of her first child.

Daniels’ return was not without controversy because of her decision to decline a call-up to the U.S. National Team rather than wear its jersey honoring LGBT Pride Month. In a statement, team owner Steve Malik said the decision to re-sign Daniels “was not made lightly” and that “the priority expressed in those conversations (was) the safety of our players and maintaining an inclusive, respectful space for the entire team.”

Now that the team is finally out on the pitch preparing for a new season, it’s Nahas’ job to pull it together into a cohesive, winning unit.

“Overall, I think the group has embraced one another,” Nahas said in a Zoom session with the media early in training camp, adding that the energy at practice has been fantastic and that “the commitment to excellence was really, really high.”

How that energy carries over from the practice field into game action is yet to be seen, especially since several key players have already missed time because of duties with their national teams.

As excited as he is about the potential of his squad, Nahas understands “there’s still a long road ahead” in the process of realizing it.

“I’m not going to put any benchmarks on anything. I think that wouldn’t be fair to the players,” he said. “It’s more about where do we want to evolve to and where do we potentially see this group going with the talent we have and more talent coming in.

“We always want to have high standards and put ourselves in situations to be successful. What that looks like and how we go about it, that’s still to be determined.

Other than the new look of the roster, Nahas said the changes in the team’s style of play will be minimal. That’s a comforting thought to holdovers such as O’Sullivan.

“It feels different, but I still have that same feeling for the club, for everyone here,” the native of Ireland said. “It’s really good, but it’s definitely a big change. I think it’s going to be really good, but it’s going to take time to click and evolve over the whole season.”

The NWSL Challenge Cup, started as a special event following the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020, is now in its third year. Each team will play six matches before participating in a knockout round. Following a championship final on May 7, the NWSL will begin a 22-game regular season.