Semifinal Preview: Old friends Paul Riley, Vlatko Andonovski face off
The North Carolina Courage are seeking a third straight final appearance when they host Reign FC
North Carolina Courage coach Paul Riley (right) and Reign FC coach Vlatko Andonovski (left) will put their friendship aside on Sunday (Photo credit: Lewis Gettier/isiphotos.com)
North Carolina Courage coach Paul Riley (right) and Reign FC coach Vlatko Andonovski (left) will put their friendship aside on Sunday (Photo credit: Lewis Gettier/isiphotos.com)

Sunday’s matchup between the North Carolina Courage and Reign FC is a classic tale of two different seasons. 

The Courage soared to their third consecutive NWSL Shield and are aiming to reach their third consecutive league final, posting the leagues top offense (54 goals for) and defense (23 goals against) along the way. Boasting multiple candidates for both league MVP and Defender of the Year, coach Paul Riley explained how his squad kept up such a torrent pace over the course of the regular season.

“We talk about standards a lot, I think that was the part in this journey that I’ve really enjoyed,” he said. “The staff have had to do more this year than I think they’ve ever done, so kudos to the assistant coaches and the whole medical staff and our equipment staff and the whole backroom staff, they’ve done a lot to be able to get us here. We’ve had a lot of people coming in and out, and a lot of different things to manage over time. When you look back and say, who’s played really well, I think when you go through the lineup… just about everybody that’s been in the lineup has had a good season.” 

It’s that consistency and mentality that has driven the Courage to having home-field advantage against Reign FC in a season where the NWSL Final will be played at Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park. Coming off a postseason last year that forced the Courage to not play their semifinal contest at home due to weather concerns, Riley and his group are excited for staying at home this postseason and potentially playing for the final in their own stadium. 

“There’s a great buzz in the group,” he said. “In all my four years, this is the freshest I’ve seen us going into the semifinals. The first year in Western New York we were very tired, very fatigued. I don’t even know how we got through that. We look fresh, even the national team players have a buzz about them. They’re excited that we’re at home. Hopefully we get a big crowd – the crowd has been tremendous the last few games for us. “

For Vlatko Andonovski and Reign FC, the story has been a bit different this season. Injuries across the board created roadbock after roadblock, all of which Andonovski’s squad heartily overcame. Lead by rookie standouts Bethany Balcer and Casey Murphy, Reign FC managed to sneak into the fourth spot in the playoffs. No matter what happens this weekend, the Reign FC coach is proud of how his group managed to get to the semis.

“We cannot let these last two games take over for what the entire season looked like,” he said. “We’ve had challenges, especially with all of the injuries we had to overcome. I have to say that the team did incredible. We are happy to be in the playoffs, the entire organization did an incredible job to work together towards this goal. 

“Now, obviously, we’re going to do whatever it takes to be successful in this last two games, but even if we are not, I have to say we are very happy and glad to be in this next game.”

Despite taking two different paths to this years semifinal, both Riley and Andonovski have crossed paths before and have great mutual admiration for each other,  which will be left at the door on Sunday.

“He’s one of my favorite people in the world, to be honest with you,” Riley said. “Very good friend and a brilliant coach. He’s a breath of fresh air – great tactics brain, great guy. I did my pro licenses with him, so we got very close in our years doing that together. We’d always run things off each other, talk his head off for days at a time at these camps. I love him. We get along great. But, we won’t be talking to each other for those 90 or 120 minutes on Sunday, and after we’ll get back together again.”

Andnonovski added of Riley, “I think Paul is one of the best coaches that I’ve ever coached against. He’s done an incredible job with the Courage, and they’re incredible altogether – good team, good roster, organized, discipline, so altogether they’ve done an incredible job. We are very well aware of how good they are, and the fact that they are the best team and have been for a few years now. We’re going into the game very relaxed – we have nothing to lose, and if we win, it’ll be spectacular.”

The Courage will take on Reign FC in the first of two 2019 NWSL Semifinals on Sunday, October 20. Kickoff is set for 1:30 p.m. ET and will air on ESPN2.

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