Team Name: North Carolina Courage
Head Coach: Paul Riley
Last Year’s Finish: 15-4-5, 1st overall (third consecutive NWSL Shield and second consecutive NWSL Championship)
Despite a wealth of absentees heading to France for the World Cup, Paul Riley’s side once again captured the NWSL Shield, this time edging out the surging Chicago Red Stars. The Courage were pushed to the brink by Vlatko Andonovski’s Reign FC in the league semifinal, but prevailed on their way to a third straight NWSL Championship appearance. With home-field advantage on their side, the Courage handedly defeated the Red Stars to win their second straight league title.
Key Players In: Hailie Mace, Ally Watt, Addisyn Merrick
Key Players Out: McCall Zerboni, Merritt Matthias (INJ), Heather O’Reilly
Player to Watch: Crystal Dunn (MID)
Last season brought a wealth of success for Crystal Dunn as a Swiss Army knife option for both club and country. A left-back for Jill Ellis’ Women’s World Cup Champions and a stalwart as a wide midfielder for Paul Riley’s league winners, the ever-talented Dunn wore many hats last season and succeeded at whichever one was thrown her way. With a long offseason to recover from her NWSL Championship ankle injury and a flurry of matches across the world, Dunn should be tapped to reprise her 2019 performance – or possibly even better it. Her versatility, should Riley need it in a tournament environment, is an ace in the hole for the defending champs.
Challenge Cup Outlook: The Courage have consistently led the way the past few seasons and they may have gotten better. Zerboni’s leadership and tenacity in the midfield were paramount in the Courage’s success in 2019, but Hailie Mace, Ally Watt, and Addisyn Merrick all appear to be ready to contribute this summer. While eating up minutes typically reserved for Zerboni and replacing Merritt Matthias’ spot at right back may be slight concerns, there are few legitimate roadblocks on paper for the Courage in their quest for another trophy this summer.