The first obstacle in front of the North Carolina Courage in their quest to claim back-to-back championship crowns in the National Women’s Soccer League is a formidable opponent.
Reign FC, coached by the highly respected Vlatko Andonovski, will be looking to upset the Courage at home Sunday in Cary, N.C. in the NWSL semifinals.
Despite their massive amounts of injuries and lack of star-power, the Reign have given the Courage fits this season. The Reign came out on top in the first meeting, 2-1 in May, then lost by two goals in July, then fell narrowly by a single goal in August. The Courage set the NWSL scoring record this season with 54 goals, but they certainly weren’t racking up those totals against Andonovski’s side.
“They’re a good team. Obviously, they have good players and are well-coached. I think they match-up pretty well with us physically,” Courage forward Kristen Hamilton said over the phone earlier this week. “They’ve had a good defense throughout the year… I think going into the game this weekend it’s just focusing on us, control what we can control and if we play how we can play and how people have seen us this season, then we should get a good result.”
There’s one more point to make about the three previous games between the Courage and the Reign, and that is that perhaps the greatest women’s soccer player in the world didn’t participate in either contest. That won’t be true on Sunday, as Megan Rapinoe – the Golden Boot and Golden Ball winner from the 2019 World Cup – seems to be fully fit for the Reign.
“She’s obviously had an incredible year,” Courage fullback Jaelene Hinkle said of Rapinoe. “She’s a very talented and skilled player, and obviously a player that we’re watching going into this game. I think it’s just everyone staying focused and being tuned into what we know about her and some of the other players – their tendencies, their weaknesses, their strengths.”
Rapinoe has featured in just five games for the Reign this season and has yet to score, but the U.S. national team star has impressed for Andonovski’s side in the past. She tallied seven goals and six assists in 16 games last season and netted 12 goals in 18 games the season before. At the World Cup, she was an absolute force, notching six goals and two assists over five games. In Charlotte earlier this month, she dished out a pair of assists in a U.S. victory tour stop.
Though Rapinoe won’t be the only offensive threat that Paul Riley’s side will have to worry about. Bethany Balcer has created a strong case to claim the NWSL Rookie of the Year award this season, as she’s tallied six goals and two assists over 24 games.
Balcer’s path to the NWSL is a unique one, for sure. She played NAIA ball at Spring Arbor University – a college in Michigan with less than 2,000 students – and was invited to the Reign’s preseason camp and earned a supplemental roster contract. Because of the several injuries the Reign suffered, she was thrust into the lineup in April and has made the most of her chances.
“Vlatko being their coach, he’s done a really good job with the talent that he has this year,” Hinkle said. “With so many injuries, I think it says a lot about them too, their work ethic and skill on the team, to go through what they’ve done this year. We’re not taking our game against them likely. They are a good team and they made the playoffs for a reason.”
Based on their previous meetings, this is a match that likely won’t be a fireworks display full of goal-scoring. Although, if it starts going that way, the Courage may have the edge with several creative scoring threats on their side.
Between Lynn Williams, Debinha, Crystal Dunn and Hamilton, the foursome has combined for 36 goals and 21 assists. Jessica McDonald has also netted five goals and dished out three assists this season in limited action, while Hinkle – from left back – has contributed a goal and six assists, the third most dimes in the league.
Last week, Courage players voted on player awards for the team, and Hinkle was named Defender of the Year while Hamilton was named Offensive Player of the Year. Hinkle was recently named as a finalist for the league’s Defender of the Year award, and Hamilton was tabbed as an MVP finalist. Each were named to the Best XI selected by the NWSL Player’s Association.
“It meant a lot to me,” Hinkle said of the club award. “When your team recognizes you for the work you’ve put in, the development of yourself for the year, I just think it meant a lot and says a lot about my teammates… It was really sweet. I was really excited to receive it.”
When asked if Hinkle felt if she was having one of her best seasons, she said: “I think so, honestly. Personally, I feel that I’ve gotten better each year. Sitting down with Paul, he was pretty adamant about this being one of the better years for myself. Thankfully it’s been a year where I’ve been injury free and I’ve just been able to perform and play every minute.”
While Hinkle was always going to be a starter this season, Hamilton had to work her way in and wait for her chance to shine. In her exit interview at the end of last season, Riley mentioned to Hamilton that she would get an opportunity to play more in 2019 with several players departing for the World Cup.
The 27-year-old Denver product got her first start of the season in May, and then broke out with a hat trick against the Orlando Pride on June 1. Then, on July 5, she established herself as a legitimate scoring threat by finding the back of the net four times, an NWSL record, in a win over the Houston Dash.
With Dunn, Debinha and McDonald away at the World Cup, Hamilton helped the Courage’s offense stay afloat. And then she played so well that Riley couldn’t take her out of the lineup.
“It’s a little surreal. I think that I had a decent year, especially when the World Cup players were gone, and to have that recognized by your teammates is really cool… It’s really special,” Hamilton said. “I still think there’s inconsistencies that I can work on and improve on, but yeah, in terms of productivity, I think it’s been one of my better seasons.”
Jill Ellis even took notice, giving Hamilton her first USWNT cap on Sept. 3 against Portugal.
“It’s cool to know that the work and effort that you put into in this league, day in and day out, it gets recognized and noticed,” Hamilton said. “It’s not just for nothing. I think it’s really encouraging for any other player in the league to see that your performance here is rewarded. So, that was cool to get that opportunity and that experience. I’m grateful to Jill for giving me that.”
While the Courage’s attack has rotated pieces in and out throughout the season, the back-line has largely stayed the same with Hinkle, Abby Erceg, Abby Dahlkemper and Merritt Mathias anchoring the defense. But last month, Mathias suffered a torn ACL and soon-to-be-retired veteran Heather O’Reilly was slotted in at right back.
She’ll have a tough job on Sunday, tasked with marking Rapinoe, but the Courage players don’t seem to be worried about the veteran’s abilities.
“No one can deny Heather’s experience and her presence on the field is always known. She’s a workhorse. She will work her butt off for anybody,” Hamilton said. “If she makes a mistake, she’ll work back. You can pretty much tell her to do anything and she’ll do it. And she obviously knows what she’s doing. More than anything, I almost find her to be a calming presence. She always seems to bring some sort of humor to the game.”
O’Reilly has appeared in a total of 13 Courage games this season, making four starts. In addition to her single goal and lone assist, she’s racked up 15 key passes and 14 tackles. The veteran is also completing 80 percent of her passes.
The Courage will take on the Reign at 1:30 p.m. EST Sunday in a nationally televised affair on ESPN2.