Soccer

Old, new, borrowed and blue: NC Courage debut at home Saturday

Posted April 20
Updated April 22

— There’s a wedding happening this Saturday in Cary.

On one side are the remnants of the Western New York Flash, the defending National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) champions whose celebrated professional history dates back to 2009 and includes four titles over various leagues.

On the other side is the Carolina Courage, the Cary-based women’s soccer team that played from 2001-2003 at the former SAS Soccer Park in the now-defunct Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA), the world's first professional women's soccer league.

The resulting marriage is the North Carolina Courage, formed after North Carolina FC owner Steve Malik purchased the Flash’s NWSL franchise and player rights from meatpacking magnate Joe Sahlen to relocate the team to the Triangle.

The neo-Courage, née Flash will live in the same home as their early aughts namesake. It’s now named WakeMed Soccer Park, although thanks to a handsome dowry its centerpiece pitch was recently rebranded “Sahlen’s Stadium.”

Ain’t love grand?

After an early DC honeymoon last weekend, the blue-clad Courage make their home debut Saturday against the Portland Thorns. Like any nuptials, there’s plenty of excitement and anxiety for all involved, from the team executives to the coaches, players, and supporters.

“We have no idea what to expect,” says Sam Mewis, one the Courage’s star players and a recent regular on the U.S. Women’s National Team. “We went to the [North Carolina FC] friendly against Atlas [FC], but we don’t know if we’re expecting a crowd of 300 people, 3,000 people, or 10,000 people. We just have no idea what the community’s like. No one knows.”

What’s well-known is that the Research Triangle region of North Carolina has long been an epicenter of women’s soccer. That’s largely due to Anson Dorrance’s North Carolina Tar Heels program, which has won 22 NCAA championships, appeared in 27 NCAA Women’s College Cups, produced nine Hermann Trophy winners, and boasts six members of the National Soccer Hall of Fame. The Atlantic Coast Conference has fielded a team in every Women’s College Cup—except 2004—since it began in 1982.

Another element of familiarity is WakeMed Soccer Park itself, which has hosted seven Women’s College Cups. Eight Courage players have played in a College Cup held at WakeMed Soccer Park. Indeed, five of them—Mewis, Abby Dahlkemper, Taylor Smith, Katelyn Rowland, and Darian Jenkins—last played on the park’s main stadium as UCLA teammates winning the 2013 national championship.

When you ask the former Flash coaches and players about the early differences between Western New York and Cary, the first item they list is now getting to practice outdoors on grass, in contrast to Sahlen’s Sports Park in Buffalo, an indoor facility that served as their former training home.

But the similarities in personnel and style of play will carry over for a team that led the NWSL in goals scored last year.

“I think we’re more mature,” Mewis says. “We were very young last year, and we’re still young. But the experience we had [winning the league championship] was one that allowed for a lot of growth. I also see a lot of the same things: we’re going to be fast, we’re going to be dangerous, we’re going to play really high pressure. It’s such a fun style to play, so I imagine it’ll be very fun to watch.”

The Life of Riley

When Paul Riley learned the Flash were moving to North Carolina, he told his wife, “Whether we’re going with them is another thing.”

Riley was out of contract after his debut season as manager for the Flash. According to Riley, the decision if he would follow his players to Cary largely came down to whether Malik and team president Curt Johnson wanted a locally-based manager who has more connections to the area and might be less expensive from a salary and travel compensation standpoint.

At the same time, Riley—who has managed all but four of the last 27 years in New York State—had his own trepidations.

“I wanted to be with the players,” Riley says. “I wasn’t convinced about coming all the way to Carolina.”

Riley ultimately couldn’t abandon his players, who urged him to stay on, and a team that has yet to realize its full potential, even after winning a league championship. Riley saw that the move to North Carolina might be a key to their development.

“You look at this group and think what they could do if they stay together,” Riley says. “I think in Western New York, they wouldn’t have stayed together [beyond] this year. They would have been split up, I think players would have wanted to leave. Now that we’re here, there’s a good opportunity to keep this team together for three or four years.

“We knew that last year was early for us,” Riley continues. “We felt this was a work in progress. The team has been built for probably two or three years down the road. They were 22 or 23 [years old]. But you don’t ever want to not take it when it comes.”

The Finishing Article

The Courage return 15 members of last year’s Flash, starting with the attacking duo of Lynn Williams and Jessica McDonald. Williams led the NWSL in goals (11) last year and won the league’s MVP. The much-traveled McDonald, a member of the 2008 and 2009 Tar Heels national champions, scored 10 goals and led the Flash with seven assists.

Mewis, who missed six matches last year as an alternate for the U.S. national team at the Rio Olympics, will anchor a midfield core that includes mainstay McCall Zerboni, former UVA standout Makenzy Doniak, and newcomer Yuri Kawamura, the Japanese international who will play center back until the return of injured Courage and New Zealand team captain Abby Erceg.

Dahlkemper, who played every minute of last season, will feature at center back alongside Erceg, with Kawaura and Courtney Niemiec providing depth. Taylor Smith and new arrival Sam Witteman look to platoon at right back. The 23-year-old Witteman was the tenth overall pick in the 2016 NWSL draft by the Orlando Pride, which traded her to the Courage last offseason in exchange for Australian international Alanna Kennedy.

Jaelene Hinkle, who has eight caps for the U.S. national team, is the starting left back.

“Hinkle is a year older, and she wants to get back on the national team,” Riley says. “She should be on the national team. She just needs to play better defensively.”

Elizabeth Eddy, a former U.S. youth national contributor, will likely find significant minutes at midfield and defense after starting every match for the Flash last year.

At goalkeeper, Rowland will begin the season backing up Sabrina D’Angelo, the Canadian international and subsidized player who also missed matches last year for Rio.

“When you look at players like Abby Dahlkemper, Sam Mewis, Lynn Williams, Liz Eddy, Sabrina D’Angelo, Makenzy Doniak, and on and on,” Riley says, “there are a lot of great players with a great opportunity to make the national team.”

Beyond Kennedy, the other significant departure was Michaela Hahn. The 23-year-old former Florida State standout was chosen in the first round of the 2016 NWSL draft by the Flash and appeared in 13 matches during her rookie season. Riley says waiving Hahn is “probably the hardest decision I’ve had in coaching women’s soccer over the past seven or eight years.”

“The issue with Michaela is not whether we wanted to keep her,” Riley says. “It’s Michaela wants to start and play. I said to Michaela, ‘With Sam Mewis, Yuri [Kuwamura], and McCall Zerboni in the midfield, the likelihood of you starting is very, very remote this year. How do you feel about that?’ She said, ‘I’m not happy about that, Paul.’ So that was our transparent conversation.

“I love Michaela. She wasn’t in our bottom six players; she was probably one of our top 12 players. Some people think you always cut the bottom players on the roster. Sometimes you don’t, because you have players at 17, 18, 19, and 20 who are still trying to train and get better. Michaela Hahn wants it now.”

In addition to Kuwamura, the Courage’s offseason acquisitions came in two waves. First was the arrival of Brazilian midfielders Rosana and 25-year-old Debinha. Both were already slated to join the Flash before the announced move to North Carolina. The 34-year-old Rosana has logged 112 appearances for the Brazilian National Team since 2000, scoring 21 goals. She’s participated in four FIFA World Cups and four Olympic Games.

Rosana's acquisition was part of a package deal whose other half was subject to some negotiation. According to Riley, there was no question who he really coveted.

“I just told them, ‘I want Debinha,’” Riley gushes. “Debinha, to me, is one of the best players in the world. She reminds me of Vero [Verónica Boquete], the Spanish international I had in Portland and Philadelphia. This player is a difference maker in this league. She’s different from everybody else. Not many teams have a pure number 10. She can play the 10, but she can play the wide areas, too.”

Days after announcing the move to North Carolina, the Courage selected four players in the NWSL draft. Their two first-round picks—Ashley Hatch and Darian Jenkins—have signed with the club. Riley remains optimistic about the other two draftees—Raleigh native Claire Wagner and Jaycie Johnson—and hopes they will develop this year with an eye towards making the squad in 2018.

Hatch played at Brigham Young University and scored 47 goals and recorded 21 assists in her four years with the Cougars. Chosen second in the draft, Riley believes she was the best player available after top pick Rose Lavelle.

“Ashley Hatch reminds me a lot of Lynn Williams,” Riley observes. “Just like Lynn, she has athleticism, she’s brave, can score goals, can hit the ball and run behind. Now it’s about fine-tuning. She’s raw, just like Lynn was two years ago, and now look at where Lynn is.”

The Courage’s other first-round pick was Darian Jenkins, the UCLA forward who missed much of her senior season with a broken fibula. Jenkins remains on the disabled list as she recovers, but Riley hopes she will join the regular roster in a month or so. And he’s already seen enough to be excited.

“Darian Jenkins is the real deal,” Riley says. “She would have gone higher in the draft if she had played most of last season [at UCLA] and not gotten hurt.”

The Courage won their season-opener over the Washington Spirit last weekend. With two consecutive home matches next on their schedule, the team is eager to settle into their new digs, invite over a lot of guests, and make a few improvements along the way.

“People say, ‘Well, you’re the championship team,’” Riley says. “But you know what? We weren’t even close to being the best team in the league last year. We’ve got plenty of room for improvement. We want to play better football and bring a crowd in who appreciates the dynamic part of our game.

“We have so many things we can get better at, and that’s the most enjoyable part of the process. Yeah, we won a championship, but we’re not the finished article. Not even close to being the finished article.”

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