top of page

The line-breaking passing of Kaleigh Kurtz was a key to success for the North Carolina Courage on Saturday night

By Tyler Trent

Photo credit Lewis Gettier / NC Courage

Going against the grain in 2023 reaped tremendous benefits, as the North Carolina Courage led the league for parts of the year before finishing third in the table. In 2024, the Courage became trendsetters, with other teams looking to emulate Coach Sean Nahas and his team's possession-based style.

Coach Nahas’ North Carolina Courage is not only about possession, however. While possession may be one of the biggest pieces of a larger puzzle, you have to score goals to win games and the Courage benefits greatly from its strong centerback pairing — Kaleigh Kurtz and Malia Berkely.

Kurtz and Berkely are regarded as a strong centerback pairing across the league, but fewer see the impact they play in the Courage attack. A point was raised in Saturday night’s NWSL+ broadcast by former professional Lianne Sanderson, who said, “Something so simple is the fact that the centerbacks are so good at playing the ball through the lines to the midfield. Most centerbacks don't like playing the ball into that area cause it's a high-risk ball.”

Sanderson's analysis was absolutely correct. It's a risky move, but it plays to the strengths of both Kurtz and Berkely with their great passing ability.

In the post-game press conference, I asked Kurtz how the team approaches balancing risk versus reward. Kurtz immediately responded, “I feel like it's come with years of making a lot of errors and the coaches not just taking me off the field immediately after those errors and getting to sit with them and learn from them. So, kudos to them in doing that.”

That trust in growing and learning by many coaches across the world has paid dividends. With many defenders in today’s game tasked with more and more responsibility in the attack, the ability to play balls that bypass lines of the defense is a vital tool in standing out.

Kurtz continued to talk about the adjustment period to being the starter, saying, “When you enter this league after sitting on the bench for however many years, it takes a little bit of time to get used to the speed of play, and even in this amazing environment of our training environment, games are always faster.”

That adjustment period for Courage’s longest-serving veteran, Kurtz, included seasons spent behind great players like Abby Erceg and Abby Dahlkemper. When Dahlkemper left the Courage to join Manchester City in 2021, Kurtz became the go-to starter alongside Erceg after waiting for her chance since the 2018 season. Since then, Kurtz has pretty much held that spot, and even more so in the last two seasons, which saw Kurtz play every minute of back-to-back seasons, earning Ironwoman status.  

Kurtz now enters into her second full season with Berkely as her centerback partner with a coaching staff that trusts in them both to make those crucial decisions.

“Our coaching staff just allows us just to make a mistake and play again. It's not like you make two errors and then you are losing your starting spot the next week. You would have to do something really significantly bad to get that spot taken away from you. So, there's a little bit of a comfort there knowing that this is my spot and someone has to really fight me on it, and I need to perform really poorly to have someone take it from me. So that gives me a little bit of comfort to try and make those different plays, different passes.”

As Kurtz continued, she acknowledged the need for those types of actions in the possession-based style of Nahas, saying, “He also wants us to play a certain style, and it's very much possession-based. Sometimes, that means being a little bit more forward, breaking lines, and taking risks. Luckily, we have an amazing back four and eleven so that if we do make a mistake, everyone is, like I said, sprinting back and getting to help each other out so hopefully we get that clean sheet.”

On Saturday night, those line-breaking passes were on display for both Berkely and Kurtz and kickstarted several of the Courage's best attacking moments. One of the best-looking moves in the match began with Kurtz finding Ashley Sanchez before the ball was quickly moved up to Haley Hopkins on the wing.

The buildup of the second goal begins with Kurtz finding Manaka in free space while the Thorns press is asleep.

All those passes on the night weren't successful, but as Kurtz described in the post-game press conference, the team always stepped up when putting themselves into bad positions. The Courage earned its second clean sheet of the season.

The North Carolina Courage will have a weekend off before going on the road to Angel City FC on Sunday, April 21. The game will be broadcast on CBS Sports Network.