On Sunday afternoon, the North Carolina Courage took on the hosting Boston Breakers in a battle between #1 and #2 in the early NWSL table. This clash was equally predictable and completely unexpected, with the long history of the two teams playing each other (albeit with the Courage playing under the crest of the Western New York Flash up until this season.) North Carolina’s success has been perhaps unsurprising, with a squad that continues to be made up of players that won the NWSL Championship last year, but Boston’s place as an upstart has taken more of an interesting turn.
A Tale of Two Starts
Boston has spent the beginning of the season battling against its own reputation as a NWSL bottom-feeder, and number one NWSL 2017 College Draft pick Rose Lavelle has proven herself to be truly invaluable to the squad as a playmaker, especially last week where she found her first professional goal and the Breakers took down perennial powerhouses the Seattle Reign 3-0 in the fourth week of NWSL play, behind strong play from Canadian international Adrianna Leon.
On their end, the Courage have been all but unstoppable this year, with the combination of a steady defense led by center-back Abby Dahlkemper, a midfield anchored by USWNT regular Sam Mewis, and an attacking tandem in Jess McDonald and Lynn Williams that the rest of the league has struggled to match.
Most of the first half of the match was spent with Boston trapped in their own half of the field, leaving strikers Leon and Natasha Dowie somewhat isolated from the rest of the team. However, Williams and McDonald couldn’t find the final shot against a Breakers defense that seemed content to bend but not break, under the leadership of Megan Oyster in the back. Lavelle would occasionally try to create something out of nothing, but the Courage comfortably controlled the pace of the game from the beginning of the match.
Nort Carolina Closes it Out
This control found its way onto the scoreboard at the 32nd minute, when McDonald scored her 33rd all-time NWSL goal off of a set piece, a new league record (Seattle’s Kim Little previously held the record at 32). The half ended with that same 1-0 score-line, with Boston not necessarily mounting much offensively, but also not giving up anymore major defensive opportunities besides the lone goal from McDonald.
After the half, Boston seemed to settle into the game a little bit more than in the previous half. The midfield did a bit of a better job moving forward, opening up Lavelle to do more prominent damage to the NC back line, and allowing Leon and Dowie to make dangerous runs into the box in the attacking third. Morgan Andrews came on in the 61st minute for Boston, and got some quality minutes at she works her way into the Boston lineup consistently in her first year in the league.
While North Carolina ultimately walked away with all three points, with the 1-0 score-line holding, the implications of such a close game proved to be intriguing as the league moves forward into the fifth week of the 2017 season. While not indefensible, the Courage really do look like a team operating at a class above the rest of the league, where every member of the team is striving to do their job at all times, and with an offense who’s speed and athleticism makes them almost impossible to truly defend. On Boston’s behalf, a team that struggled weekly for years playing the defending champs so closely has to be nothing but encouraging, and another example of how Lavelle and other first round picks like Andrews can really turn a team’s fortunes around almost immediately.