Luke DeCock

How Courage soccer team found a new home in North Carolina – and maybe a new title, too

Jessica McDonald (14), McCall Zerboni, second from left, Ashley Hatch, third from left, and Samantha Mewis, fourth from left, of North Carolina Courage set up a wall against a free kick shot by Megan Rapinoe (15) of Seattle Reign at the WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary on Saturday, July 8, 2017. North Carolina Courage won 2-0.
Jessica McDonald (14), McCall Zerboni, second from left, Ashley Hatch, third from left, and Samantha Mewis, fourth from left, of North Carolina Courage set up a wall against a free kick shot by Megan Rapinoe (15) of Seattle Reign at the WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary on Saturday, July 8, 2017. North Carolina Courage won 2-0. newsobserver.com

The really amazing part is not that the North Carolina Courage are playing for a second straight title, or that it was the best team in the NWSL this season, or that in a league full of household names it has done it without any of them, but that it was sold and relocated without missing a step.

If anything, amid the disruption of moving and starting over and establishing itself here, the team got even better. That’s tough to do.

The Courage will conclude its first season in North Carolina on Saturday in Orlando, Fla., against the Portland Thorns, going for the repeat. A year ago, as the Buffalo-based Western New York Flash, it was a surprise champion in the league, the latest incarnation of women’s professional soccer in the United States.

North Carolina FC owner Stephen Malik bought the team, moved it south, renamed it after the original Carolina Courage – from 2001-03, one of the most talented franchises in the ill-fated WUSA, the first attempt at a women’s pro league – and let it loose on the immaculate fields of WakeMed Soccer Park, with tremendous success.

“This was a nice little surprise for us,” Courage captain Abby Erceg said. “I guess you could say it was a little bit of a reward for winning last year.”

There are plenty of reasons why the Courage has been able to manage this transition so successfully. The core of the team moved south, along with second-year coach Paul Riley, so there wasn’t much personnel turnover. Training got easier, because the team had played its games in Rochester and practiced an hour away in Buffalo, both on artificial turf. And the Courage has a lot of young players who are only getting better, which gave the Courage the raw talent to go from champion to first place to, possibly, champion again.

It’s been a good fit. The Courage has actually outdrawn its male counterparts at NCFC, and last Sunday, more than 10,000 fans came out to watch the Courage’s semifinal victory over the Chicago Red Stars. This is an area that has always supported women’s soccer, from the early days of North Carolina’s dynasty through the brief but successful tenure of the Courage, and is again now.

“We’ll see people out at a coffee shop, and they’ll ask if we play for the Courage, and they know us now,” said midfielder Samantha Mewis, who has made 30 appearances for the U.S. National Team. “That’s a little bit different.”

What may be the most unlikely part, on and off the field, is how the Courage has done it without a ton of star power. In a league full of players who have achieved fame and success with U.S. Soccer, the Courage doesn’t really have any of its own, at least not yet. Four Courage players were named to the national-team roster for the next two games against South Korea, the second of which will be Oct. 22 at WakeMed Soccer Park, but only Mewis is a regular at this point. The other three have all played their way into contention with the Courage.

That’s all part of the plan for Riley, who preaches a high-energy pressing style that uses the Courage’s fitness and athleticism to take away time and space, and who loves having a core group of players who are young and only getting better. They may not have big names now, but they might soon. And not just around here, but around the world.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

  Comments