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North Carolina Courage vs. Utah Royals FC: three questions with Dirty South Soccer

Aaron Bellamy gave us some valuable insight ahead of Sunday’s match between the Courage and Royals

Lucas Muller | RSL Soapbox

Utah Royals FC are away to North Carolina Courage. The Courage were far and away the best team in 2018, but haven’t had as strong as start to 2019. With the US players already out, both teams looks very different than they might otherwise look. Aaron Bellamy of Dirty South Soccer answered some of our questions ahead of this match up.

North Carolina Courage have taken 8 points from 5 games. How do you rate their performance so far? Was getting a loss so early in the season a surprise?

I don’t think that getting a loss is too surprising. Chicago is extremely strong and we’ve had to play them twice in the first 5 games, but only getting 8 points is very mediocre. If we’d been able to put one in the back of the net against Sky Blue FC the weekend before last, we would have 11 points and still be at the top of the league.

What has been surprising is the poor quality of play since the USWNT players left. The Courage were able to beat PSG and Lyon without any of the USA players last year - and they were missing Mathias and Zerboni - so I think we all expected things to go pretty smoothly without them. The performance over the first three games was incredible. 10 goals and a +8 goal differential was above anyone’s expectations with the national team players around. That was easily A+ level performance. The last two games have been miserable, though. It’s easy to make excuses about how much every individual player matters to a team, or how it’s unbalanced when one team loses its players, but at the end of the day these are professionals on the team that bills itself as the best women’s soccer club in the world. Zerboni hasn’t stepped up like a USWNT bubble player should have. Lynn Williams hasn’t stepped up like she needs to. Denise O’Sullivan has regressed. Jaelene Hinkle and Merritt Mathias have looked exposed in the attack and on defense at the flanks. These are all players that need to be stepping up to earn a place on the next USA squad. Even good teams lose games, but I want them to lose because the other team outplays them at their best.

What went wrong in their game against Chicago last weekend? What did the Red Stars do to be so successful in that match?

There have been a lot of problems lately. For one, the Courage haven’t been making good use of their offensive opportunities. They are sending balls into the box without picking out players. That’s probably just a result of new players in new positions, but it’s preventing them from scoring.

Second, in the midfield they aren’t focusing enough on winning duels. The midfielders are going in and hacking at the ball, but they’re not winning challenges when they make contact. They need to stand the player up and force them to make a move during their challenge, because too often their momentum is taking them past the ball and out of the play.

Third, the defense hasn’t been communicating well, and that’s going to get worse since Abby Erceg is now away from the team [editors note: to both Aaron and Lucas’ surprise, the New Zealand National Team players will be back with their NWSL clubs this weekend]. The backup defenders have been lackluster in these two games, and the goalkeeping hasn’t been good either. Katelyn Rowland is coming back from a shoulder injury that kept her sidelined for the first five matches, and she didn’t look back to full health against Chicago.

The Red Stars, for their part, played excellent counter-attacking football. They knew the Courage were off balance, and they let us overextend and then hit hard on the counter. Once they had the advantage, they had a great press that knew exactly where the ball was going. They isolated the fullbacks on the wing, forced a turnover, then passed around the bad challenges to create an advantage. It was an excellent performance, and it paid off for them.

Between their US and Canada players, the Courage are down five players. Who fills those key roles and how do you predict the team to weather the World Cup?

As of this weekend we will also be losing Abby Erceg, so both centerbacks will be gone. Kaleigh Kurtz, who started six match in 2018, was supposed to be Dahlkemper’s replacement, but she was so bad in the game against Sky Blue FC that Paul Riley replaced her with Cari Roccaro. Roccaro will probably start again, and then it will be either Kurtz returning to the center of the defensive line or Ally Haran making her first NWSL appearance. Neither one of those options inspires me, but I think Paul will stick with Kurtz.

The rest of the options fill themselves. Kristen Hamilton has started both games for Crystal Dunn, and she should keep getting those minutes. Denise O’Sullivan is playing in the Sam Mewis position, although I wouldn’t be surprised if she got a “rest” game with Liz Eddy playing that spot instead if she continues to struggle. The spot vacated by Jess McDonald has been filled by a committee of Swedish international Julia Spetsmark and rookie Leah Pruitt. Both have scored once on the season, and I think Riley wants Pruitt to win the starting spot. Either way, one player will get about 55 minutes and the other will get 35. In goal, Katelyn Rowland is there to stay unless she aggravates her injury. If she does, Sam Leshnak will become the starter.

As for predictions? I was very confident ahead of the season, but now not so much. There is still a lot of potential, but I’d really like to see the formation change a little. Something like a 4-1-3-2 would set Zerboni back a little further to protect the defense, and that would be very beneficial for the team.

You can read our responses to Aaron’s questions at Dirty South Soccer.