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Assessing the Start of the New Era North Carolina Courage

By Tyler Trent

The Courage celebrate a goal against Racing Louisville (Photo courtesy of the NC Courage)

After ten matches, the North Carolina Courage sit in seventh place in the NWSL table. While it’s early in the season, sitting in seventh place for a team that has not clicked on all cylinders yet is very promising. After mass departures and roster restructuring, the new-look Courage has shown flashes of the team that Coach Sean Nahas has spoken often about this season. Nahas has envisioned a team confident in possession, with fast build-up, that presses high up the pitch to win the ball back, and that ultimately plays an entertaining brand of soccer that fans will enjoy.

What Has Gone Right for the Courage This Season?

Nahas and the team have stuck to the style of play through thick and thin, and it’s been picking up steam as the squad gets accustomed to each other. This plays directly into the entertainment value of the team. The Portland Thorns vs. NC Courage match on May 6th was the fifth-highest attended regular season match in Courage history. While part of this was due to stars like Sophia Smith being in town, the Courage took the opportunity to impress and entertain the crowd and everyone who tuned into the game.

Continuing to grow the fanbase is a crucial goal for the Courage organization.

The Stats Behind the Play Style

Through ten games, the North Carolina Courage has had five different goalscorers, with Kerolin leading the way with four of the team’s ten goals in league play. Meanwhile, the Courage also has five different players who have provided an assist, with Ryan Williams and Narumi Miura with two each.

Part of the exciting playstyle involves the progressive play of the team. Kerolin leads the team in progressive carries per 90* at 4.0, with Olivia Wingate following with 3.48. Emily Fox leads the team in progressive passes per 90 with 7.0, complimented well by the midfield duo of Denise O’Sullivan (5.7) and Narumi (4.54).

The Courage has won the possession battle in every league game this season, except the Portland Thorns match, where they held 49% as the two sides fought to an even 3-3 draw. The Courage has averaged 58.8% possession on the season, leading the NWSL. The majority of that control has come from the midfield unit of the Courage.

Coach Nahas has repeatedly said this season that the team isn’t at its best without the ball. The strong possession statistics show that the Courage has taken that playstyle to heart.

Defending crosses into the box is one of their weakest points. The Courage currently has the league's lowest aerial duel win percentage at 38.5%. That’s 69 won aerial duels, under half of the lead-leading Washington Spirit (159).

Captain Denise O’Sullivan is currently second in the league in tackles won per 90 at 2.40 only behind Sam Coffey at 2.55. This is a testament to the winning possession back immediately mindset that the Courage employs this season. Narumi also ranks seventh with 17 on the season so far.

The Courage currently leads the league in pass completions with 4,203 which is 489 passes over the second-best Portland Thorns. Center back Malia Berkely leads the league in pass completion with 90.9%. Since she got her chance to start this season, she has taken that center-back position and made it hers as a reliable defender with a strong range of passing.

Casey Murphy currently leads the league in clean sheets (4), tied with Kailen Sheridan. Murphy has done well with the shots sent at her, but the Courage outfield players have also done well to prevent those opportunities by keeping possession for large parts of the match.

Through 10 matches, the Courage has been one of the most improved teams in NWSL this season based on points earned, as shown in the below graph from Alison Gale.

Graph created by Alison Gale

The next graph created by Gale shows that the North Carolina Courage sits in a similar spot in goal differential. While they have scored fewer goals, they have also given up fewer goals this season. This has ultimately been more important in the teams’ success so far.

Graph created by Alison Gale

In the final graph, the Courage's goals through 10 matches are compared to last season, where you can see a significant drop in production only comparable to the Houston Dash, who are currently one place above the Courage in the NWSL table.

Graph created by Alison Gale

What Needs Improvement?

The biggest issue with the team thus far has been the lack of goalscoring. With only ten goals in ten games, the margins for getting wins could be better. In those ten games, the Courage has been held scoreless three times, scored once five times, and scored more than one goal twice. The biggest defeat of the season for the Courage came in the second match - a 3-1 loss against San Diego. In all other matches this season, one goal could have made the difference between turning a loss into a draw or turning a draw into a win.

In the most recent post-match press conference, Coach Nahas acknowledged the need to improve in the final third, mentioning that even when a player gets into a good attacking position, the team hasn't been putting appropriate numbers in the box to give an attacking advantage. Nahas also shared that the team has been consistent in their playstyle based on data, but being dangerous in the final third is the hardest part of the game, and it takes time for any team to get to that point.

If the Courage can take the next step in their system, they will be a more complete team capable of earning those extra points they have missed out on this season. Where does that improvement begin though?

The return of Tess Boade to the Courage for her first appearance of the season was encouraging for offensive production. Though the Courage could not find the equalizer, Boade was at the heart of several strong attacking movements. By finding those pockets of space, she created opportunities that the Courage was missing previously in the match. While Boade’s return from injury is a boost to the squad, several other key factors could contribute to the team’s success.

Last year, much of the Courage's goalscoring production came from rookie Diana Ordóñez. Current rookie, Olivia Wingate, has shown flashes of the immense talent and speed that she can use to create chances. If Wingate can adjust further to how Coach Nahas envisions the team’s play, that will be one of the biggest x-factors for the remainder of the season. The Danish duo of Rikke Madsen and Mille Gejl have also shown glimpses of what they are capable of in front of goal, but only have one goal each this season so far.

The Road Ahead

The Courage is currently in the middle of a four-match road trip where they defeated Racing Louisville before falling to the Kansas City Current. This weekend they will travel to Chicago to face the Red Stars before a quick turnaround to face the Washington Spirit in the NWSL Challenge Cup.

Four of their next five NWSL matches are against opponents that are below them in the table (Chicago, Orlando, Louisville, and Angel City). Making the next month a crucial stretch to their season. Additionally, the Courage will have a match against the Houston Dash, who currently sits one point ahead of them in the standings.

This provides a massive opportunity for the Courage to make strides in improving their play in the final third while also providing an excellent opportunity to climb the table.

With only 12 games left in the NWSL regular season, the verdict is still out on the North Carolina Courage for many. If they address goalscoring issues, they will be one of the toughest teams to deal with in the league. Regardless, the team's supporters should be happy with the direction of the team and the product on the field moving forward.

*Stats sourced from FBRef

*Per 90 stats based on minimum of 5 matches played