Neil Morris

By the numbers: NC Courage reaches midseason atop NWSL standings

Posted July 6

Sam Mewis (FED-USA) (5) of NC Courage.  The NC Courage host the 2016 Supporters Shield winners, the Portland Thorns, on Saturday, April 22 for the team's inaugural home opener at newly named Sahlen's Stadium and WakeMed Soccer Park.  NC Courage defeat the Portland Thorns 1 to 0.

Photo by:  Suzie Wolf

— The North Carolina Courage is one of only two United States professional soccer teams, men and women, to not draw a match this year. What distinguishes this fact from mere statistical anomaly is the obvious observation that the Courage play to win, which it has done more than any other National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) team at the midpoint of their 24-match regular season.

North Carolina is arguably the most entertaining team in what is still largely a star-driven league. It hasn’t generated any of the 13 NWSL Players of the Week/Month this year. However, it placed three players each on the league’s Teams of the Month in April and June.

Consequently, the Courage have remained perched atop the league standings from the season’s start, overwhelming their opponents almost all of their eight victories. The team embarks on the back half of their season schedule this Saturday when it hosts Megan Rapinoe and the Seattle Reign for the first time this year. Notwithstanding their confident, high-octane performances, North Carolina sits only one point ahead of the Chicago Red Stars, which soundly defeated the Courage twice, and four points ahead of the Reign. Barring a second half collapse, North Carolina appears bound for the NWSL playoffs. That said, only five of the Courage’s remaining 12 games are at home, and the schedule includes three tilts against the Reign and visits to Chicago and the Portland Thorns.

North Carolina’s swashbuckling style of play reaps rewards, but also the sort of lopsided losses one wouldn’t expect from a defending league champion and current table topper. The Courage has allowed just two goals over their eight wins, while conceding ten goals in their four losses.

What accounts for this fitful juggernaut? What and who has gone right and wrong for the Courage midway through 2017? Let dive into more stats and analysis, thanks in part to the data-gathering of Opta Sports:

  • The Courage’s 18 goals scored and 12 goals conceded are each third-best in the ten-team NWSL. North Carolina is outscoring its opponents 11-5 in the first half, but it has both scored and conceded seven goals in the second half. The Courage has scored one-third (six) of its 18 goals during minutes 31-45, while conceding one-third (four) of its 12 goals allowed during minutes 46-60. Every coach who says scoring first is the key to victory can cite the Courage as evidence: it is one of only three NWSL teams to win every game in which they score first. Indeed, North Carolina has scored first in all eight of their victories, and it has lost each of the four games it has conceded first.

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  • The Courage’s 154 shot attempts are 15 more than second-most Houston Dash, and their 77 shots on target are eight more than second-most Sky Blue FC. That said, North Carolina’s shot accuracy is sixth in the league and its shot conversion percentage is seventh. The Courage ranks eighth in both in attempted passes (excluding crosses) and passing percentage (70.1)—that percentage drops to 60.2, ninth in the league, in the opponent’s half of the field. So, where is the Courage’s offensive advantage? North Carolina’s league-leading 291 crosses are a whopping 57 more than any other team, and it completes a higher percentage of crosses than any other team, too. Their corner kick dominance is similarly astounding. The team has taken 83 corners, 13 more than second-most Seattle, and has a corner “success” rate of 63.9 percent; Houston is second at only 43.1 percent.
  • Although Lynn Williams’ scoring pace has subsided from last year’s Golden Boot tally, she is still the engine that drives the Courage attack. Her three goals and two assists tie her for the team lead in both categories. Moreover, she ranks fourth in the NWSL in chances created (20) and third in shot attempts (42), despite missing three games due to injury.

NC Courage win home opener over Portland, 1-0

  • Six Courage players have ten or more shot attempts this season. Only one player has put at least 50 percent of those attempts on frame: rookie Ashley Hatch (11 of her 22 shots).

Inverted Triangle: NC Courage's Hatch on NWSL honor

  • Goalkeeper Katelyn Rowland has the best saves-to-shots percentage (83.3 percent) in the NWSL. Sabrina D’Angelo, who has started seven matches in goal, has the league’s second-lowest percentage (61.5 percent). Interestingly, their combined 26 saves is less than seven other individual goalkeepers in the NWSL, a testament to North Carolina’s usually stout back line. Indeed, the Courage have faced the fewest total shots (98) and on-target shots (38) in the league; Chicago has faced the second-fewest shots with 130.
  • Midfielder McCall Zerboni’s 164 duels—which Opta defines as “a 50-50 contest between two players of opposing sides in the match”—are the second-most in the NWSL. She’s also one of three Courage players—Sam Mewis and Abby Dahlkemper being the others—to play every minute this season.
  • Abby Erceg and Abby Dahlkemper merit much praise for their work at center back this season. Meanwhile, Jaelene Hinkle and Taylor Smith have developed into the presumptive starting fullbacks, but they’ve only started three games together at those positions (both were in the starting XI at Chicago on May 27, but Smith began the match in midfield). The Courage won all three of those matches, surrendering just one goal.

NC Courage win home opener over Portland, 1-0

  • Speaking of Hinkle, much chatter ensued over her decision to withdraw from a call-up to the national team last month due to “personal reasons.” Speculation over those reasons overshadows the fact that Hinkle has played well enough to merit the call-up. Hinkle’s penchant for pushing forward at left back stretches opponents’ defenses long and wide, creating more space for attackers like Williams and Debinha. Hinkle has appeared in nine games, and the Courage has lost two of the three games she did not play. Of the two losses in which Hinkle started, one was the 3-1 home defeat to Chicago that featured a three-player starting back line that didn’t initially include Hinkle but did feature forward Jessica McDonald, an ill-fated experiment that ended after 45 minutes and three Chicago goals.

NC Courage v Portland Thorns, April 22, 2017 - WakeMed Soccer Pa

  • The injury bug hits all teams in all leagues. But, only eight Courage players have appeared in ten or more games this season—only the Washington Spirit (six players) have fewer. Williams, Hinkle, McDonald, and D’Angelo has each missed three or more matches due to injures. The Courage hope to have all their regulars available this weekend against Seattle.
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