In early May, 2016, the Western NY Flash headed to New Jersey to take on Sky Blue FC for the first time that season. The Flash beat Sky Blue 2-1, just the second win for a young team in an even younger season. That win, like the first, which had come on opening day, had hardly come easy. The Flash, by the end, was just holding on tight, trying to get through it.
One of the things Paul Riley cited as a reason for the early season shakiness was that his very young team hadn’t had the easiest time handling the circumstances of those first few games. The season opener — though Western NY had ultimately won on a 71st minute PK — was played at Children's Mercy Park, home of Sporting Kansas City, in front of more than 8,000 people. “We played the first game in Kansas City, big stadium,” Riley had said about that game. “You could see a lot of the kids like this, looking around like ‘oh my god.’”
The next week, the Flash were at another big stadium, this time Toyota Park in Chicago, and though the crowd was decidedly smaller, it was still something far removed from the modest and more comfortable Sahlen’s Stadium back home in Rochester. The Flash lost 1-0.
A week after beating Sky Blue, the Flash were back in another big stadium, this time in Orlando, and at Camping World Stadium, Western NY again couldn’t handle the pressure, losing 1-0 to the Pride.
After Orlando though, the Flash returned to Rochester, and with seven straight home games, started to turn the season around, ultimately winning six of those games. By August, WNY was in the playoff picture, and by September, Riley’s band of kids and odd veterans had more than exorcised whatever that big stadium demon was, first knocking off the Thorns in the semifinal at a packed Providence Park and then beating Washington at BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston to claim the 2016 championship.
The Flash’s run to the title had, at first, seemed kind of like a fluke. There was no good reason Western NY should have been any good, at all, let alone be lifting a trophy. The team had run up scores against Boston and basically tied its way into the playoffs. There weren’t any big names, and the Flash hadn’t, postseason games aside, performed particularly well against any of the league’s top teams. And yet there they were, lifting a trophy in Houston among a shower of confetti.
A year later, with a 3-2 win over Washington on Wednesday, the North Carolina Courage became the first team to clinch a playoff berth this season. And this time, there’s no question about whether they deserve to be there.
Back in April, and even into May, almost no team looked good. Mostly, it was a lot of games filled with goofy blunders and the timid nervousness of a freshman on the first day of high school. Some teams, like Orlando, Portland and Sky Blue, climbed out of it. Washington and Boston are still, some five months later, looking for the pool the cool seniors from the lunch line said was on the third floor of this two-story school.
North Carolina though, escaped all that. While everyone else was fumbling around trying to open their lockers, the Courage were just winning. North Carolina opened this season with four straight wins, and though three of them were only by a goal, all were dominant performances.
Mostly, the Courage didn’t need to score more than one goal because they’d become — or just were — so good at completely shutting down any chance at an opposing attack. Even now, 19 games in, the Courage has allowed a league-low 16 goals. Ten of the team’s 14 wins have been shutouts.
Part of what made North Carolina so successful in the early part of the season was a high press that was almost impossible for opposing teams to solve. In those first four games, the Courage conceded just 27 shots, while, thanks to that pressure forcing a lot of turnovers in dangerous areas, recording 72.
Even now, well into the season and with at least a couple of teams finding some success in disrupting the Courage’s go-to game plan, North Carolina has continued to win games. Since July 15 when the Courage lost 1-0 to Portland, North Carolina’s had two games postponed due to weather and, oh, won five straight. In all but one of those games — confusingly, the one against Washington — the Courage have held the other team scoreless.
Unlike a year ago when the Flash were using a favorable schedule with a lot of games against bad teams to rack up goals and wins, this year, it doesn’t seem to matter as much whom North Carolina is playing. Lynn Williams isn’t leading the league in scoring, either.
Instead, last year’s MVP and Golden Boot winner is tied with about 70 other players with five goals for the season. But she also doesn’t need to be scoring a lot to make up for or mask some other deficiencies, because the Courage is a more complete team than it was a season ago.
The Courage’s front line, with Williams and Jess McDonald, has plenty of support now. McCall Zerboni and Sam Mewis have dictated most of North Carolina’s game from the midfield, both in forcing turnovers defensively and setting up offensive chances. Ashley Hatch has, in her rookie season and despite not starting consistently, put up five goals. Abby Dahlkemper, Abby Erceg and non-Abbys Taylor Smith and Jaelene Hinkle have formed one of the strongest backlines in the league. Smith, who’s started to get some looks from Jill Ellis, has, as an outside back, also become a threat going forward.
A lot of teams look better now than they did in April, which, given we’re, like, five months into the season, isn’t exactly shocking. But a lot of those teams also started out sitting in the wrong class for, like, 35 minutes before they realized it.
That North Carolina looks even better than it did at the beginning of the season? The shield’s not officially North Carolina’s to claim yet, but the Courage already have a five-point lead on second-place Portland and they’ve got a game in hand. That’s a big hill for the Thorns, or anyone, to climb, and not a lot of time to do it.
All times Eastern
FC Kansas City vs. Sky Blue FC, 6:00 PM, Children’s Mercy Victory Field (go90)
Chicago Red Stars vs. North Carolina Courage, 6:00 PM, Toyota Park (go90)