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NC Courage open 2019 NWSL camp: Looming World Cup gives new faces opportunities

North Carolina Courage players walk off the pitch during the first day of training on March 4, 2019. (Mitchell Northam / Pro Soccer USA)

RALEIGH, N.C. — A bit of inclement weather Monday pushed the North Carolina Courage’s first training session of the season to a different terrain. It rained much of the night before and frigid temperatures and clouds didn’t help fields at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C., dry out any quicker, so Paul Riley’s side opted for the turf at the WRAL Soccer Park.

Temperatures hovered around 50 degrees, and while many were bundled up at the first practice of the year, the climate was nothing for Ally Haran.

“My first day in Iceland, it snowed,” said Haran, who joins the Courage for her first National Women’s Soccer League season after playing 2018 with UMF Selfoss — a club in Iceland’s top division.

Haran is one of many new faces in camp for the Courage, the two-time winners of the NWSL Shield and the reigning champions of the league. And while several players from the Courage’s 2018 title team return, many of them will miss significant playing time in 2019 because of the looming World Cup.

So players like Haran, who might typically be further down the depth chart, are going to get a chance to play.

“The great thing for the young ones and new faces is, due to the World Cup and the players that are away, I feel like it’s a great opportunity for them to show what they can do, what they’re capable of,” said Riley, now in his third season with the club. “Obviously, we know them from watching video, but seeing them live against our own players is a little bit different.”

North Carolina Courage head coach Paul Riley watches his team on the first day of training on March 5, 2019. (Mitchell Northam / Pro Soccer USA)

New acquisitions and draft picks by the Courage will get the opportunity to impress Riley and his staff early, without the national team players taking their reps. Because of friendly World Cup-prep tournaments going on right now, such as the SheBelieves Cup, the Courage are without several important players to begin camp.

Among those absent include Abby Dahlkemper, Abby Erceg, Debinha, Samantha Mewis, Denise O’Sullivan, McCall Zerboni, Crystal Dunn, Jessica McDonald and Stephanie Labbe.

The 2019 World Cup will be played in Paris, France. Leading up to and during the June 7-July 7 competition, the Courage could be without up to nine players.

But the show must go on for the Courage as they look to defend their crown. Riley will need to count on unfamiliar faces to step up, acclimate themselves quickly and make a difference.

“We want to get them used to our culture, our environment and what we believe in and our process of making players better,” Riley said. “Hopefully, if you put every ounce of sweat you’ve got into it, and you come out and you want to learn and you’re curious, then you’ll get better. If you’re not — you know, I’m not serving egos here, I’m serving aspirations. If you have an aspiration, I’m with you all the way.

“If you have an ego, you won’t play here that long. I think most of them understand that. It’s up to the player really, to take the bull by the horns.”

Among the new players in camp Monday were a foursome of 2019 NWSL Draft picks in Leah Pruitt, Lauren Milliet, Hailey Harbison and Kaycie Tillman. They mixed in with returners Katelyn Rowland, Elizabeth Eddy, Jaelene Hinkle, Kaleigh Kurtz, Cari Roccaro, Meredith Speck, Kristen Hamilton, Lynn Williams, Merritt Mathias, Heather O’Reilly and others.

Riley hopes the atmosphere and qualities he’s helped build with the Courage will rub off quickly on the draft picks and newcomers.

“The great thing about our players is they’ve grown into professionalism and they know what it’s like to prepare for the season, and they’ll help these younger players mature and be better professionals, off the field as well,” Riley said. “The culture is 24-7. You’ve got to believe in it every day.”

North Carolina Courage midfielder Heather O’Reilly on the first day of training camp on March 4, 2019. (Mitchell Northam / Pro Soccer USA)

Despite the number and quality of players the Courage will be without at various points of the season, Riley doesn’t plan on changing the system that has been so successful for the club. Expect the Courage to stick with the 4-4-2 formation that led them to a 3-0 win over the Portland Thorns in the championship match.

Leaning on that formation means that, at several points in the season, Riley will be without his two starting centerbacks, Dahlkemper and Erceg, who will play for the U.S. and New Zealand, respectively, in the World Cup.

Riley said that Kurtz will be in one of those spots, while the other centerback position will be a battle between Julie King and Haran.

“It’s really up to one of those two to grab the other spot,” Riley said.

King was selected by the Courage before last season in the dispersal draft after the Boston Breakers folded, but she never saw the pitch in 2018 after having ankle surgery.

Haran was a four-year starter and twice a team captain at Wake Forest and spent her first professional year abroad, playing in Iceland. For UMF Selfoss, she played every minute of 19 games and scored twice.

“I just wanted to keep playing after college,” Haran said. “I got an agent and he hooked me up with a team out there. I just got on a plane and I was ready to play.”

While Haran may have impressed in Iceland, she acknowledges the NWSL is at a higher level. Before Courage camp began, she had been training at her college stomping grounds at Wake Forest, trying to get prepared for her first shot in the league.

Last year, she followed the Courage and the league as a whole as much as she could through Twitter.

“The big thing everyone talks about is how fast (the NWSL) is, so I definitely want to improve my ball speed to be able to keep up with those fast forwards,” Haran said. “Just reading the game and really trying to learn everything I can from these great players.”

Riley thinks Haran will have the chance to grab a real role with the Courage this season, but she’ll have to take advantage in training sessions this month and prove herself to the coaching staff.

“She’s comfortable on the ball, she’s smooth,” Riley said of Haran. “Ally’s next step is, can she play under pressure? Can she play with Lynn Williams chasing her? Because that’s different than a college player or an Icelandic player. There’s no question about that. How comfortable and composed are you to get rid of the ball, can you make the pass to get us out? I think Ally’s test will be that.”

Riley has about a month to figure out his depth chart, mesh new personalities together, and decide who is replacing who when key players depart for the World Cup.

A year ago, the Courage lost just one regular-season NWSL match en route to capturing the shield and the championship. Riley concedes the 2019 season likely won’t be as smooth.

The season begins for the Courage on April 13 at home against the Chicago Red Stars.

“We’re going to play the same way this year. We’ve been playing it for two years, but we can get better,” Riley said. “I don’t think you can look at the season and think you’re only going to lose one game like last year. It’s just impossible. It’s going to be a grind.”




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