The North Carolina Courage returned to National Women’s Soccer League action after their participation in the Women’s International Champions Cup. After losing in the final, they were aiming to return to winning ways and continue to hunt down the Portland Thorns at the top of the table. They faced the Seattle Reign, who were themselves looking to push for a playoff spot as the end of the regular season draws closer.
North Carolina Courage (4-2-2-2): Stephanie Labbe-Jaelene Hinkle, Abby Erceg, Abby Dahlkemper, Merrit Mathias-Denise O’Sullivan, Samantha Mewis-Debinha, Crystal Dunn-Kristen Hamilton, Lynn Williams
Paul Riley lined up the home side in a 4-2-2-2 formation. The side remained unchanged from their defeat to Olympique Lyonnais Féminin in their last game. Stephanie Labbe remained in goal. Jaelene Hinkle and Merrit Mathias would be the fullbacks with Abby Erceg and Abby Dahlkemper in central defence. Samantha Mewis and Denise O’Sullivan would form the double-pivot in midfield. Debinha and Crystal Dunn would be the advanced midfielders supporting the pair up front, Lynn Williams and Kristen Hamilton.
Reign FC (4-2-3-1): Casey Murphy-Steph Catley, Lauren Barnes, Megan Oyster, Theresa Nielsen-Allie Long, Celia Jiménez Delgado-Beverley Yanez, Rosie White, Bethany Balcer-Jodie Taylor
Vlatko Andonovski set up the away side in a 4-2-3-1 shape. He made one change to the lineup from their previous game against Sky Blue FC. Celia Jiménez Delgado came in for Shea Groom and slotted in next to Allie Long in the double-pivot, at least on paper. Celia would actually drop back to be on the right of the three central defenders to make the formation a 5-2-2-1. Beverley Yanez would remain in the double-pivot with Allie Long. The advanced midfield duo of Rosie White and Bethany Balcer were behind the lone striker in Jodie Taylor. The defence remained unchanged with Theresa Nielsen and Steph Catley as fullbacks with a central defensive partnership of Lauren Barnes and Megan Oyster.
The Reign with the ball
Initially, the Reign were very much in the game as they would win the ball back from North Carolina and counter before their opponents could get in an offensive rhythm. Reign would attack out of the 5-2-2-1 and have the fullbacks push forward to join the line with the double-pivot or further if necessary.
North Carolina Courage would aggressively press out of their 4-2-2-2 formation. When not pressing, they would fall back to a 4-4-2 formation with Dunn and Debinha dropping back to flank the double-pivot.
Reign would often send direct balls towards Taylor where she’d either hold the ball up or immediately play it to a supporting teammate. To this end, the Reign would try to have the players such as White and Balcer in close proximity to receive any lay-offs. Taylor also made runs in behind the Courage backline where her teammates would look to find her as well. These weren’t particularly effective during this game.
The Reign’s best moments came when they would go from defence to attack after regaining possession. Whenever they did win the ball, Reign would often find themselves in numerically favourable transition situations. With the Courage committing plenty of players forward, the Reign would try to capitalise during their counter-attacks.
There were very few periods where the Reign could retain possession and put the North Carolina backline under consistent pressure. And whenever they did hold the ball, their conservative approach made it difficult to create quality goalscoring opportunities. They began to rely almost exclusively on the counter-attack. They did well throughout the game to threaten with these but couldn’t find the back of the net.
North Carolina in control
Once the Reign began to sit back more often than not, North Carolina began to have a strong grip on proceedings. They were retaining possession easily, denying counter-attacks and creating chances at will. The conservative approach didn’t work out too well for the Reign with multiple issues arising in defence. Reign would drop back and defend in their 5-2-2-1 most often. At times it would be a 4-3-2-1 when one of their fullbacks were still caught up the pitch.
North Carolina were able to exploit the space in the midfield and found gaps between the lines. The Reign fullbacks would also help the midfielders press at times. Or a centre-back would follow a Courage attacker that dropped into the space behind the Reign midfield. North Carolina used intelligent movement and combination play to exploit this as well. Their players dropping in to draw defenders out of position and create gaps that teammates could run into.
When the Courage were building up they would send their fullbacks up high. The double-pivot would help the centre-backs bring the ball out in a sort of 2-2 block. One of Mewis or O’Sullivan could even drop between the centre-backs to make it a 3-1. When they progressed the ball, they would position their forward players in various ways. One that was effective was when one of the strikers moved wide with one of Dunn and Debinha operating in the half-space on that side. The other advanced midfielder would then move centrally, causing a situation where the Courage are overloading one side of the pitch with all their forward players. This would free up space for the fullback on the opposite side in a one-vs-one situation. Or if there wasn’t adequate Reign marking then one of Dunn and Debinha would be free in the midfield.
Other times Dunn would move out wide with both strikers staying centrally. Dunn would look to deliver quality crosses into them. Debinha would remain more central, looking for space or waiting to support the strikers with runs into the box.
Reign also used a press initially but would often do so when the ball reached the wide areas. They would try press to direct the ball to these areas and try to force long balls or a loss of possession. The Courage didn’t have much trouble breaking the press as they could free up one of Dunn or Debinha quite easily. With Williams and Hamilton, they could occupy the entire Reign backline. This pinned the fullbacks who couldn’t freely move to mark Dunn or Debinha. If they just dropped deep, they would need to be marked by a Reign midfielder. This would leave the Reign outnumbered as they pressed.
Lynn Williams was a threat throughout the contest. Her positioning in and around the box and her quality whenever she dropped deep as on full display all game. It was fitting that she claimed the winning goal to show for her efforts. And it all came from great work by substitute Jessica McDonald in the half-space and her combination with Dunn. The sequence can be seen in the following images.
The final score doesn’t fully convey the performance produced the North Carolina Courage who could’ve scored plenty more. Early threats from the Reign didn’t materialise into any sort of foothold in the game. The Courage will be glad to have got a win as they look to leapfrog the Portland Thorns. They now go to New Jersey to face Sky Blue FC. While Reign moves on to play host to the Orlando Pride, they are still very much in contention for a playoff spot.
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