Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports
CARY, N.C. – A new-look North Carolina Courage defeating the Kansas City Current, last year’s finalists, 1-0 to open the NWSL season might seem like a surprising turn of events, if not for Kansas City’s lengthy availability report.
The Current had six players unavailable for Saturday’s match, and that included all three of their new midfield signings: Debinha, Vanessa DiBernardo and Morgan Gautrat.
Despite this, the Courage’s home opener provided more insight into their self-proclaimed new era, one that includes a lot of question marks for the team that once set the standard for success in the NWSL. Keeping in mind that this was merely one result in a very long regular season, here are a few things we learned about North Carolina’s new look, and whether or not it can sustain them.
Kerolin is the focal point of the Courage attack
Playing as a false 9 in the Courage’s 4-3-3, Kerolin capitalized on Kansas City’s disorganized back-four and found the space the fullbacks left open when the Courage were on the counterattack. Courage newcomer Tyler Lussi, playing on the right wing, repeatedly found a streaking Kerolin and successfully played her in behind Kansas City’s Hailie Mace on more than one occasion.
While Kerolin has been relentless in transition since her NWSL debut in 2022, she clearly worked on her strength in the offseason. She wasn’t getting pushed off the ball nearly as much as she did last season, and that’s a critical development for a player who looks to take on defenders in the box.
Although Kerolin wasn’t the goal scorer for North Carolina – Danish newcomer Mille Gejl scored the lone goal of the match – she generated the highest expected goals value (0.30) of any player on four shots. Kerolin and the Courage attack struggled to connect their final passes and find the back of the net, though, which brings me to my next point.
North Carolina is missing a ‘true’ center forward, but midfield questions are being answered
The Courage clearly missed Diana Ordóñez in their home opener. Ordóñez was the target of many crosses last season, both on the ground and in the air. Without Ordóñez or a natural No. 9 in their line up, a handful of the Courage’s chances were wasted across the box without anyone getting on the end of the final ball.
The Courage have visibly tried adjusting their attacking game plan in light of their forward personnel, though. They only sent in four non-corner crosses the entire game, which is fewer than their average of 17.2 crosses per game last season. Regardless, if North Carolina had a natural center forward on Saturday, they likely would have put away more than one of their chances.
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On the flip side of that, the Courage have seemingly begun to figure out how to operate without the irreplaceable Debinha, even if Kansas City’s midfield was depleted. Japanese international Narumi Miura debuted for the Courage in the middle of the pitch, and she impressed. Aside from providing the assist on the game-winning goal, Miura was essential for the Courage in their build-up play, winning possession in the midfield and feeding play into the attack. Narumi created the most chances of all Courage players (3) and attempted and won the most tackles (4). With a debut like that, it’s likely that Miura becomes a mainstay in the Courage midfield.
There are questions at center back for head coach Sean Nahas
A center back pairing of Kaleigh Kurtz and Ryan Williams anchored the Courage’s backline against Kansas City. This was Ryan Williams’ center back debut, after she played over 1,000 minutes at full back in 2022. When Williams was asked about her new role in the postgame press conference, she said:
“Well I guess they needed me there, I’m used to playing right back but I’ve had a couple conversations with the coaches and they said they felt like this is what they needed from me. I don’t know how long it’s going to be, but I’m just trying to learn as much as I can and do as well as I can.”
Nahas and the coaching staff’s decision to transition Williams to a center back for this match is a curious one, considering North Carolina’s roster make up. Rookie Sydney Collins is a natural center back, as are second-year Malia Berkely and veteran Estelle Johnson. In the postgame, Nahas also hinted that Emily Fox, who started at fullback in her North Carolina debut, could see time as a center back against different opponents, and that she was only playing on the outside against Kansas City as a tactical decision to attack space from deeper areas.
It’s hard to interpret the depth of the center back position if the coaching staff is training new players to step in ahead of players who have experience in that role. And while Williams’ performance was solid and the Courage secured the shut-out, it’s also difficult to tell if this is a long-term solution. A shorthanded Kansas City might not have been the best test.
Altogether, the Courage put together a solid performance against the 2022 runners-up in their season opener. If they continue to build off of this, the new era in North Carolina might not be so bad.