Preview: North Carolina Courage (a).
Updated: May 1
When? May 1 2021, 4.30 p.m. (PT), 7.30 p.m. (ET), 00:30 (2/5 BST). Where? Sahlen's Stadium, Cary, NC. How can I catch the action? The game is live on the CBS Sports Network for residents of the United States. The game is being broadcast live on Twitch, for international viewers. Head to twitch.tv or download the Twitch app.
The Orlando Pride will have undoubtedly gained a lot of confidence from their win over the Washington Spirit last time out. The return of Alex Morgan provided a huge boost to the attack, and noticeably lifted the rest of the squad. The significance of such a player cannot be overstated. The Courage are always a huge test, however. A roster loaded with star studded players, and genuine quality awaits Orlando. The likes of Debinha et al, have traumatised us before. The Pride will need to tread carefully if they are to get anything out of this one.
North Carolina's style
It goes without saying, really; but this will be a huge test for Marc Skinner's team. This is a club full of serial winners, as well as tremendous footballing quality. This is a team blessed with attacking talent. The likes of Debinha, Lynn Williams and Jess McDonald have let footloose and fancy free on many an NWSL defender over the last few years. Unlike in recent years, however, there is a considerably large chink in their armour. There is a defensive frailty present, that is unbecoming of a Paul Riley team. The absence of Abby Dahlkemper, following her move to the FAWSL, has been keenly felt so far.
This is a team that, now, allows a lot of shots on goal. So far, this team has faced 39 shots on goal in the NWSL Challenge Cup. They just can't seem to get to grips with their defensive shape, as well as displaying a disconcerting inability to win their defensive duels and tackles. So far in this Challenge Cup, the Courage have only won 55.4% of their tackles, and 47.% of their duels from their first 3 games (figure 1). Which is especially suprising when you consider, they won 74.4% of their tackles and 50.8% of their duels (figure 2). Why's that, you say? Well, it's due in no small part to the absence of Dahlkemper. In the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup, the imposing defender won a whopping 100% of her tackles, and 60% of her duels over the 4 games. Imperious. No, not the curse. Shout out to all my Harry Potter nerds.
Figure 1 shows the percentage of tackles and duels won by North Carolina in the 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup.
Figure 2 shows how steep the drop off has been, at least in terms of tackles won. These figures are from the 2020 edition of the Challenge Cup.
Whilst they might not seem as defensively astute as we are used to them being, you'd underestimate them at your peril. We all know that. Just like we all know the dialogue in the Phantom Menace is as disjointed as Orlando's 2018 defence. Anyway. This is a possession based team, that likes to hit the channels as often as possible. With the pace and power of McDonald and Williams, it's easy to see why they favour such an approach. Their pace allows them to stretch opposing defences, which creates space in central positions that the likes of Debinha thrive in. Case and point, figure 3:
Figure 3 is a still from North Carolina's trip to Louisville.
The home side have a few injury concerns, heading into this game. Ally Watt, Merritt Mathias and McKenzie Meehan are all out for the Courage. Rylee Baisden and Kaleigh Kurtz are both listed as questionable. Debinha, Lynn Williams and Jess McDonald are all expected to be available. Erstwhile Pride member, Carson Pickett could feature against her old employers.
Orlando Pride, meanwhile, have no immediate injury concerns heading into this one. The team were boosted by the return of Alex Morgan. They will be confident of getting at this Courage defence. A defence that lost Abby Dahlkemper (Manchester City) during this off-season.
Possible starting XI
One of North Carolina's strengths over recent years, has been there ability to field a consistent and high-quality team. Kurtz and Matthias both started the last game, in Louisville. We know Matthias will miss out, but Kurtz's fate isn't so clear. Assuming Kurtz doesn't make the XI as well, I would expect Hailie Mace and Cari Roccarro to deputise, as they did from the bench in Kentucky.
Aside from those enforced changes, I can see a fairly consistent team with no further changes:
With 3 goals in her opening 3 games of the 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup, it's easy to see why she is rated as one of the best players in the world. Debinha has carried on her impressive form in 2020, where she tallied 5 goals and 2 assists from 9 appearances. Her intelligent movement, close control and low centre of gravity make her difficult to track. When you combine those attributes with outstanding finishing ability, and a keen eye for a pass... You have one heck of a player. I had the good fortune to cover most of North Carolina's games during the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup, for the Women's Soccer show. So I was lucky to see her in action quite a bit. In my opinion, she doesn't get the credit she deserves; she's one of the world's best.
The Courage have endured patchy form so far in this season's edition of the NWSL Challenge Cup. Paul Riley's team are 2-1-0, having scored 10 and conceded 8 along the way. The Courage's traditionally miserly defence has taken to shipping goals for fun. They'll be hoping to improve on that against an, improving, Orlando side, boosted by their first win of the season against the Spirit.
As we know, Orlando are currently 1-1-1 on the season having drawn their opener (2-2 in Louisville) and having lost lost their second game (0-1 vs. Gotham), before that home win over Washington. The Pride showed significant signs of improvement against the Spirit, walking out with a 1-0 win; thanks to a superbly well-taken goal by Sydney LeRoux.
*All statistics courtesy of nwslsoccer.com
Game still courtesy of CBS Sports Network.