Outside the Box Scores: Talking about playoffs, Courage edition
The stats that shaped the season for the North Carolina Courage
The North Carolina Courage have held onto the top spot on the NWSL table for most of the 2017 season. (Photo credit: Andy Mead for isiphotos.com)
The North Carolina Courage have held onto the top spot on the NWSL table for most of the 2017 season. (Photo credit: Andy Mead for isiphotos.com)

Two of the the ten clubs have officially clinched not just an appearance in the National Women’s Soccer League postseason, but a home semifinal. The North Carolina Courage and Portland Thorns FC are booked for the weekend of October 7 and 8, and looking to extend their season one more week. The two teams are also in the running for the NWSL Shield, awarded to the team with the best record during the regular season.

While we already took you inside the Courage’s regular season and how it earned them a playoff spot, we also wanted to dive into some of the stats that highlight the strengths (and challenges) of their season.

The record

As we noted this morning, the Courage have only dropped out of first place once this season, and that was due to a weather delay. They were the first to clinch a playoff spot, but their lead over the second place Thorns has narrowed considerably thanks to Portland’s four-game win streak.

While Portland might have the strongest fortress at home in the NWSL, the Courage are still on top of the table thanks to their performance on the road. They’re the best in the league while away, going 6-4-0 with a +1 goal differential. They’re the only team with a positive goal differential on the road in the league, even if it is a small one. (The next two teams are Chicago at a 0 GD, and Orlando at -1.)

The Courage have only played 21 games so far this season, and they won’t catch up with the rest of the playoff contenders until the final week of the season. They’ll play their rescheduled match against Houston on Wednesday, Sept. 27 in Texas, then finish their season off at home against the Orlando Pride.

And of those 21 games played, the Courage have yet to settle for a draw. This just keeps on extending the record set by the Orlando Pride during the 2016 season, in which they played 18 games without a tie.

And you get a goal! And you get a goal! Everybody gets a goal!

Last year, it was the Lynn Williams and Jessica McDonald show. They were two of the three top scorers in the league, with 11 and 10 goals, respectively. They also linked up with plenty of assists – McDonald finished tied for second in the league with seven assists, while Williams finished tied for fourth in the league with five.

This year, the North Carolina Courage have options. So while that means that Williams won’t repeat as a back-to-back Golden Boot winner, it means the team has upgraded from squeaking into the playoffs to staying on top all summer long.

In 2016 there was a huge gap in goals contributed from the rest of the squad, with Abby Dahlkemper next in line after McDonald at three goals. In 2017, Williams is still the leading scorer for the Courage at six goals. But the scoring is spread out far more evenly: McDonald has four, Sam Mewis has five, McCall Zerboni and Debinha have three.

Mostly important, rookie forward Ashley Hatch and Kristen Hamilton have stepped up while Williams and McDonald have missed time due to injuries. Hatch has scored five times, Hamilton’s added another four.

So even on September 9, when head coach Paul Riley had to switch up his starting XI thanks to Zerboni’s suspension due to yellow card accumulation, he didn’t need to worry too much. The Courage are a system team this year, and Riley’s been able to swap in and out of multiple formations instead of relying on the 4-4-2 with Williams and McDonald in front.

Oh, and they’re still leading the league on corner kicks, with a 58.2% accuracy rate for 122 taken. They’re almost a full 20 percentage points over the team in second, Portland Thorns FC at 38.4%.

Stifling defense

We’ve talked plenty about North Carolina’s defense, even in Outside the Box Scores before. As much as the Courage have benefitted from that spread-out offense, they’re also getting clutch two-way performances from their midfield and forwards. That’s a big piece of why the Courage are so successful in defense.

It starts at the very back with starting goalkeeper Katelyn Rowland, who has the highest save percentage in the league at 82%. In her 14 games so far this season, she’s only conceded eight goals while earning eight clean sheets.

Rowland has only made 37 saves in those 14 games (compare to, say, the Houston Dash’s Jane Campbell who has made 52 in 13 games), but that comes back around to the simple fact that the Courage are the best in the league at stifling shots on goal.

North Carolina has still allowed the fewest shots and shots on goal in the league. They’ve conceded the fewest goals in the league as well, with one less (18) than the second place Thorns FC (19). And the Courage have the most clean sheets in the league, with 11 of their 15 wins resulting in a clean sheet.

Compare those shots/SOG faced numbers to their closest competition and you can see why North Carolina is still in first place. Chicago has the stingiest defense next on the list, and they are still far off pace: the Courage have allowed 180 shots and 70 shots on target all season, the Red Stars 241 shots and 89 shots on target.

Back in July, Lynn Williams told us that these stats are a result of the entire team, not just the back four and Rowland. “If you watch our team, we high press. We defend from front-to-back, we don’t just rely on our defenders to defend. It starts with the front line and then with the midfielders, and I think that’s how that stat comes about. Obviously, our defenders are amazing and they throw their bodies in front of balls. I truly believe we just don’t allow people to get in that situation because we win the ball in the middle of the field a lot of the time and go from there.”

And the two players most responsible for winning balls in the midfield? McCall Zerboni and Sam Mewis, two of three key players in Cary.

The spine of the Courage

Sam Mewis, McCall Zerboni and Abby Dahlkemper are the three players most key to this North Carolina Courage season. Mewis and Dahlkemper are the only two players to have played every minute for North Carolina; Zerboni would also have played a full 1890 minutes had she not been forced to miss the game against Houston due to yellow card accumulation.

Here’s a quick look at some of their stats that show the extent of their influence down the middle of the pitch:

Sam Mewis
5 goals, 3 assists
1369 touches (1st for Courage)
1047 attempted passes (1st for Courage)
246 duels (2nd for Courage) with 65.0% win rate (1st for Courage)
29 clearances
78.1% tackle win rate

McCall Zerboni
3 goals, 1 assist
1274 touches (2nd for Courage)
827 attempted passes (3rd for Courage)
297 duels (1st for Courage) with 64.0% win rate (2nd for Courage)
22 clearances
75.4% tackle win rate

Abby Dahlkemper
1 assist
1165 touches (3rd for Courage)
845 attempted passes (2nd for Courage)
75 clearances
83.3% win rate
Only 9 fouls conceded through 21 games

The question marks

So, with all of that evidence stacked up there’s plenty to appreciate about the season the Courage are having in Cary. There are questions though, and here are the big ones: passing accuracy and their losses to the other top teams in the league.

The passing accuracy numbers probably don’t keep anyone up at night in North Carolina. That high press system typically means they just eventually force a turnover to regain possession. But there’s no getting around that the Courage are in last place in the NWSL when it comes to passing accuracy.

The Courage also have made the fewest passes in the league so far this year, with a 68.0% accuracy rating for 7558 passes. Compare that to the Orlando Pride in first place, who have completed 78.3% of their 9484 passes.

While North Carolina’s passing accuracy drops to 59.1% in the opponent’s half, here’s where these numbers take a back seat: the Courage are the best team in the league at crosses. They’ve attempted the most in the NWSL, and they have the highest success rate at 28.5%. (Compare, once again, to the Pride: in 9th place with 431 attempts and a 18.8% success rate.)

While the Courage might have answers to the questions about their passing game, the one real unknown is how they will perform against the top teams at this point in the season. They haven’t won against one of the other three teams sitting in a playoff spot since April, and five of their six losses this season come from the other top teams in the league.

Back on April 23, the Courage defeated the Thorns 1-0, then followed that up with a 3-1 win over the Pride. Since then, they lost all three matches against the Red Stars, plus an additional game against Orlando in May and Portland in July.

Ultimately, comparing those two Thorns matches from April and July shows that the Opta stats weren’t all that different – the Courage allowed more shots in July, but still held the Thorns to two shots on target. The passing accuracy numbers dropped for both teams; possession stayed largely the same in North Carolina’s favor.

The Courage did allow more the Thorns to create more chances in July, even if they didn’t result in shots on target. Back in April, they held Portland to four, in July they allowed 10. Part of that might be Portland coming into form at the right time. But if the current standings hold and North Carolina needs to face off against Orlando, the Pride’s attack is arguably the most dangerous in the league as October approaches.

The Courage’s only test against a playoff contender is their final game of the season against the Orlando Pride – a home finale that might end up a preview of their home semifinal.

North Carolina will have their chance to clinch the NWSL Shield on Sunday against Sky Blue FC this Sunday, but they need some help from Portland. It takes a Courage win in New Jersey, plus Orlando earning at least one point over the Thorns for the Courage to take home what they hope will be the first of two trophies to close out the 2017 season.

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