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North Carolina Courage season preview: New faces will help in 2019 title defense

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)

CARY, N.C. — A year ago, the North Carolina Courage stormed through the National Women’s Soccer League, losing just one game en route to capturing the league’s shield and championship. Furthermore, they beat some of the best women’s soccer clubs from around the globe to win the International Champions Cup. In a sense, they won the triple crown of women’s pro soccer.

And in 2019, many expect them to do it all again.

Head coach Paul Riley is back, as is the entire starting lineup from the team that won the NWSL championship last season. The Courage didn’t suffer any serious losses on the roster, and many would argue that the club is better after adding Canadian goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe, Swedish midfielder Julia Spetsmark and a trio of solid rookies through the draft.

The challenge this team will face comes this summer, when it could be without eight to 10 players during international friendlies and the World Cup. Will the Courage have the depth to survive the summer? Will its stars come back healthy and fit from the World Cup?

Defending a trio of titles begins Saturday.

North Carolina Courage hosts Chicago Red Stars in opener

When: Saturday, April 13, 7 p.m. ET

Where: WakeMed Soccer Park, Cary, N.C.

Live stream: Yahoo! Sports, Yahoo! Sports app (U.S.); NWSLsoccer.com (international)

The buzz: The Courage won’t quite be at full strength for their season opener. Out of the gate, their depth could be tested. Goalkeeper Katelyn Rowland is battling a shoulder injury, and some players – including Heather O’Reilly and Denise O’Sullivan – just resumed training with the team Thursday. How Riley manages the minutes of his star players, and which players down the depth chart he gives an early chance to, will be something to watch for Saturday.

Expect Riley’s 4-4-2 to run like a well-oiled machine and lead the Courage to season-opening points. During the preseason, they outscored opponents 13-1.

Other key matches

May 12 at Chicago Red Stars: These two teams met in the NWSL semifinals last season, and each time they meet should be a must-watch affair. Sam Kerr and Lynn Williams should be in the race for the Golden Boot this season, too.

June 15 vs. Portland Thorns: It’s a rematch of the NWSL final, but it’s also the first game after the NWSL’s World Cup break. Both teams will likely be missing key contributors, and wins in this portion of the season will be very valuable. Depth on both sides will be tested.

Sept. 14 vs. Orlando Pride: The Pride want to compete for a playoff spot this season and this could be a crucial match for them down the stretch of the season. The Courage trounced the Pride 4-0 during the preseason, so the Pride will have to play much better on this trip to Cary.

See full schedule here.

Quotes and notes

  • Heather O’Reilly announced Friday morning she will retire from soccer at the conclusion of the 2019 NWSL season. A 34-year-old midfielder, she played in three Olympics and three World Cups with the U.S., winning the gold at each Olympics and one World Cup in 2015. She also won two College Cups at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and helped the Courage win their trio of trophies last season as a super-sub off the bench.
  • Midfielder Denise O’Sullivan on stepping up as a leader during the World Cup: “It’s going to be tough when those girls are gone, but the players that we have here are really good. We have a good core squad. So, yes, it’s going to be my job to step up and be a leader for this team when some of the girls are gone. And there’s plenty more leaders on this team, so I think we’ll be fine.”
  • Defender Jaelene Hinkle on the team motto, “Laying The Tracks”: “I think it’s just a reminder that every day, we’re building on top of something. We’re constantly getting better. Each day we’re doing one more rep or completing one more pass. That mindset of, ‘We’re never finished.’ It’s an ongoing process for us to get to where we want to be.”
  • Forward Leah Pruitt on her rookie season so far: “It’s been really great. I’ve learned a lot so far. It’s a lot different than college. The level is way higher. The girls are really good and I’ve been put outside of my comfort zone in the month that I’ve been here.”

Big offseason moves

  • The biggest off-season move was the Courage landing Stephanie Labbe, the No. 1 goalkeeper for the Canadian national team. The Courage had a hole at goalkeeper after Sabrina D’Angelo opted to sign with a club in Sweden. Luckily, Labbe, 32, was ready to return to the NWSL after spending two seasons abroad. She’ll rotate with Katelyn Rowland between the pipes.
  • Perhaps the biggest loss for the Courage this season was losing promising young forward Darian Jenkins in a trade with Reign FC. She was a super-sub of sorts for the Courage last season, appearing in 14 league matches. In the ICC, she scored the game-winning goal in the semifinals against PSG.
  • Julia Spetsmark could be an important player for the Courage during the time that key players are gone on national team duty. The Swedish midfielder has several caps for her national team, but doesn’t seem to be in its plans for the World Cup. Spetsmark, 29, is an attacking midfielder who scored six times in 11 appearances with her last club.
  • When Abby Erceg and Abby Dahlkemper are away on World Cup duty, new signee Ally Haran will be asked to step in. She’s a product of nearby Wake Forest, but spent last season playing professionally in Iceland. This will be her first NWSL season and she’ll valuable as depth on the back line.

Roster breakdown

Forwards – Crystal Dunn, Kristen Hamilton, Jessica McDonald, Lynn Williams, Leah Pruitt

Midfielders – Debinha, Elizabeth Eddy, Samantha Mewis, Heather O’Reilly, Denise O’Sullivan, Cari Roccaro, Meredith Speck, Julia Spetsmark, Ryan Williams, McCall Zerboni, Lauren Milliet

Defenders – Abby Dahlkemper, Abby Erceg, Ally Haran, Jaelene Hinkle, Julie King, Kaleigh Kurtz, Merritt Mathias, Hailey Harbison

Goalkeepers – Stephanie Labbe, Katelyn Rowland

See full roster details here.

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