The National Women's Soccer League preseason is underway and 12 clubs are beginning their journeys to the 2022 season. The 2022 Challenge Cup will kick off on March 18 and the Cup final closing on May 7 with the regular season expected shortly after. North Carolina Courage have gone through a tremendous amount of off the field turmoil as last season they terminated former head coach Paul Riley after the league and club were rocked by reports of sexual misconduct with former players.
The franchise named Sean Nahas as the interim head coach in late September and he navigated the team throughout the end of the 2021 season before being officially named permanent head coach. The coaching staff also includes Emma Thompson and Nathan Thackery as assistant coaches. Francie Gottsegen is another new face who was brought on as the club's President ahead of the 2022 season.
This is a team with a short but extremely successful history, earning several titles since their introduction to the league in 2017 -- but the Courage have seen the departures of several players over the course of the last several months with the grind of a long season and the added stress of the allegations against Riley and his subsequent dismissal taking their toll. Let's take a look at the club ahead of the 2022 season:
Finish in 2021: After back to back championships, the Courage finished sixth overall in the 2021 regular season. They had a slow start to 2021 and never truly got into a rhythm and their typical dominating style of play didn't make it to the field. Despite those struggles, the team managed to stay relevant in the playoff conversation, and clinched a spot in the playoffs with help from other team results in decision day scenarios. They were eliminated in the quarterfinal 1-0, during extra time by the Washington Spirit.
Biggest losses: The club bid farewell to to several key players, most notably USWNT players Samantha Mewis, Lynn Williams, and Jessica McDonald. Forward Amy Rodriguez, a two time NWSL champion, Olympic gold medalist, and 2015 World Cup champion announced her retirement to coach with USC. Midfielders Cari Roccaro and Anghard James were also traded.
Biggest acquisitions: In light of losing several starters, the club acquired young prospects like Kiki Pickett and Brianna Pinto and signed Jorian Baucom off waivers. New Zealand international Katie Bowen is now with the club, and Katleyn Rowland returned to the team after being traded midseason just last year. The team also signed formerly retired defender Jaelene Daniels. The signing was a controversial one as some of the Courage's fans objected to Daniels' history as she had previously said in an interview with the 700 club that she had refused to wear jerseys honoring LGBT pride month during her time with the U.S. women's national team.
North Carolina Courage currently have a 29 player roster as the team kicks off preseason. Defenders lead the way with the the most crowded line with 12 players, followed by the midfielders with nine. NWSL teams will likely narrow down rosters ahead of the 2022 Challenge Cup.
Goalkeepers (3): Casey Murphy, Katelyn Rowland, Marisa Bova (CDP)
Defenders (12): Lindsay Agnew, Abby Erceg, Kaleigh Kurtz, Merritt Mathias, Ryan Williams, Taylor Smith, Carson Pickett, Jaelene Daniels, Kaitlin Fregulia (CDP), Malia Berkely, Katie Bowen, Kiki Pickett
Midfielders (9): Denise O'Sullivan, Debinha (NYR), Meredith Speck, Havana Solaun, Frankie Tagliaferri, Emily Gray (CDP), Haleigh Stackpole (CDP), Jordyn Listro, Brianna Pinto
Forwards (5): Brittany Ratcliffe, Rylee Baisden, Diana Ordoñez (CDP), Kerolin Nicoli (NYR), Jorian Baucom
Biggest Burning Question Entering 2022 Season
Who will is going to be their star striker? The team saw the departures of two key forwards with loss of Williams and McDonald. While the club still has Brazilian international Debinha listed on the roster, a star midfielder who has the ability to score goals, create her own shot, and execute on free kicks, she's best utilized within an attacking role that has forwards creating gaps and spaces for her to exploit.
There are five forwards listed on the Courage preseason roster, the the 2022 season is an open opportunity for any of them to impress the coaching staff and solidify themselves for starting spot.
What they're saying
North Carolina Courage goalkeeper Casey Murphy recently sat with CBS Sports podcast Attacking Third and discussed her process in getting acquainted with new players. She believes that growing communication is a big part of her process when transitioning between USWNT camps and the Courage.
"When you're on a team, you start to learn [about] different players and their strengths. Somethings that maybe they're not as good at, [or] how they like to be talked to, or how you can communicate with them better. So you have to learn all these different players and their personalities, and I think that's the difference," said Murphy.
"Getting to know the players, especially the new players, that takes some time. I make it a goal every day to try and learn something new about one of my teammates. So, I think that's the biggest piece of it for me -- the transition from team to team -- How can I [better] help serve the players, on [either] team?"
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Who will crack the starting XI
The new additions outweigh the familiar faces as preseason continues, but come opening day North Carolina's starting lineup might actually strike an even balance with experienced Courage players and the newcomers. If all remain healthy, expect to see long time Courage defenders Erceg and Mathias to help anchor the backline while Debinha and O'Sullivan maintain the midfield.
The biggest opportunity positionally will likely be among the forward line, and success could depend on who develops chemistry the quickest among the connecting midfielders.
Like most things that undergo a retool, it will take time before this side clicks. It could be a rocky early season and if their efforts aren't starting to show results by the middle of the season, North Carolina could find themselves out of playoff contention for the first time in their history as a franchise.