Adrift: A NC Courage Season Review
For a team like the Courage, 2021 was a disappointment. After a weird 2020 it felt like the team had retooled and was set to challenge yet again for trophies. The personnel seemed solid and the additions were good. Natural attrition from roster rules and expansion did seem to have an outsized effect on the team, but it all seemed manageable heading into April. In fact, the Courage were in first place in July, and even deep into August were in a position to challenge Portland at the very top.
Then it all fell apart.
The Big One:
There’s no way to talk about the season without talking about Paul Riley. Frankly, it’s shameful he was hired and it casts a pall on the successes the team had with his leadership. A head coach should always put his players first, and abusing his positions of power to take advantage of them means the primary purpose was not fulfilled. The news is like a black hole, distorting and shaping the storylines of not just this year but those of years before and years to come. It’s hard to evaluate a season under its weight.
That said, the players finished the season, held their heads high, and worked together. I think any Courage fan can be proud of them. It was not the season we wanted, but there is something to build on there.
The team has slowly decline since the 2018 season. 2019 was still incredible, as the Courage ran out in front of their league rivals and managed to cover the cracks in individual play. 2020 was a weird, difficult season and the hallmarks of the Courage style — the press, the aggression, and the ruthlessness — began to fade. While the offense took a step forward this season relative to last, it wasn’t enough to put the Courage comfortably at the top of the league.
To me, there is no point in going back through each of the predictions one by one — they were wrong. All of them. Not even close.
Well — all of them except one. I did call Trinity Rodman as rookie of the year, so I will take my victory lap on that one.
Newcomer of the year
The brightest spot of the season was Carson Pickett. The departure of Jaelene Daniels was a major concern, and they may have even upgraded on the position. Pickett led the league in Key Passes, xA, and was second in assists. She was first in the league for FBs in offensive G+, as well as offensive G+/96 minutes played. Replacing the best fullback in the league with the best fullback in the league is pretty good!
Pickett struggled towards the end, as did the whole team, but she showed plenty to excite NC Courage fans going into next season.
4th attacker problem:
As the 2022 season approaches, Sean Nahas has the opportunity to fix a problem that has plagued the Courage since the departure of Crystal Dunn. Lynn Williams, Debinha, and Jessica McDonald are the best attacking trio in NWSL. Finding a player that can support them has been difficult.
The mid season trade for Amy Rodriguez was a decisive shift away from Kristen Hamilton, who had never really provided the impact needed, to another proven NWSL player. She was better than Hamilton in the second striker position, but neither player was as successful in wide spaces or deeper.
Sam Mewis returned from Manchester City and played well as a attacking midfielder, slightly different from her previous role with the Courage. She did miss time for international commitments and injury, and in the end has been traded to protect Lynn Williams from the expansion draft.
The Courage did make a big name trade, spending 125K in allocation money to bring home grown talent Brianna Pinto back to the Triangle. Pinto never really lived up to expectations for NY/NJ, but suffered from a lack of usage even in the moments she did play (she received just 2.9% of NY/NJs final third touches playing). Amy Rodriguez will return, presumably providing striker depth. Although Deanne Rose chose to play for Reading, the Courage still have her rights and Sean Nahas may be interested in bringing her back if she would join. The Courage also have a high draft pick, and while there may be other areas that need the help a good attacking player could be found in that position.
What comes next:
In the middle of roster decision season for the NWSL, it’s hard to get a clear picture of what the league will look like next year. With the league office actively and obviously thumbing the scale to make Angel City and San Diego’s roster builds easier and more competitive, teams have had to dig deep and make extremely hard choices (see the Mewis trade as well as the Haz James and Cari Roccaro trades).
Sean Nahas has his work cut out for him, but in a new era of the NWSL he has outstanding opportunities as well. If the Courage can work through the offseason and make clear headed and intelligent decisions, there’s no reason they can’t find their place at the top of the table again.