The NC Courage are set to begin their 2021 campaign this Saturday, April 10, taking on the Washington Spirit in the club’s opening game of the 2021 Challenge Cup.
The game against Washington will mark the return of fans to WakeMed Soccer Park for NC Courage games as the Courage’s two home Fall Series games took place before Gov. Roy Cooper's September 2020 executive order that allowed stadiums to open at a limited capacity.
The last time fans were in attendance for an NC Courage home game was Oct. 27, 2019, when the Courage beat the Chicago Red Stars 4-0 to win their second straight NWSL Championship.
“The fans are a huge part of the club,” said midfielder Cari Roccaro. “You really can feel their energy when you are out there. They support us, and we try to play for them. After every game, we usually walk around and thank them, wave to them. To play a couple games in the Fall Series and not have them there was kind of a bummer. It will be really good to have them there, cheering us on and feeling their energy again.”
According to club president and general manager Curt Johnson, the Courage will be able to host roughly 2,300 fans (23% capacity) due to social-distancing restrictions. With current state guidelines, the Courage could host up to 50% capacity, but with social distancing, the stadium cannot allow that capacity.
“Organizationally and from a club perspective, we couldn't be more excited,” Johnson said. “It has been a long, long time since we have been able to work our way into a game day with thousands of fans in the stadium and what you will see is a normal, in quotes, event, with lots of protocols. Health and safety at the forefront.”
The team will be without seven players for the opener as Lynn Williams (United States), Casey Murphy (United States), Denise O’Sullivan (Ireland), Diane Caldwell (Ireland) and Lindsay Agnew (Canada) are all currently with their respective national teams for friendlies, and Abby Erceg will not be available for the opener due to a back injury. Riley said they hope it is a short-term injury.
In addition to the five players away on international duty and Erceg’s injury, the Courage will also be without new signing Angharad James, who is still playing for Reading in the FA WSL and has yet to join up with the Courage. Riley said she expected to join between May 1-15.
“Reading is still playing, so it is difficult to get her out of there, she is still under contract,” Riley said. “As soon as we can, we will. As soon as they are safe and as soon they are out of the FA Cup, there is probably a better chance. For right now, she is there training hard. We have constant communication with her to make sure the fitness levels that she has there are on the level of the fitness levels that we have here, so there won’t be huge undertaking once she gets here.”
The Courage will also play this season without many of its core players from its championship teams with Crystal Dunn (traded), Abby Dahlkemper (signed with new club), Sam Mewis (signed with new club) and Jaelene Daniels (retired) all leaving the club over the last year. The Courage have retained both Mewis and Dahlkemper’s NWSL rights.
“Since the championship, we have had a lot of players leave; we’ve had some injuries too, so there will probably be six or seven players different from that team,” Riley said. “That is the exciting part, but that is the challenging part… That is the challenge for us, a lot of new players, trying to do new jobs, new roles.”
Over the past few years, Riley has always pushed the narrative of his team being the underdog (much to the chagrin of fans around the league), but this season might be the first year where that statement has some truth to it.
“I've played the underdog card for four years, and I think most of the press has given us the opportunity to play it this year,” Riley said. “Most of them have written us off… I think we will challenge for the playoffs, but there are four outstanding teams ahead of us, and we are going to have to do really well to catch those guys. ”
With so many either leaving the club or being on international duty for the start of the Challenge Cup, the opener will provide an opportunity for some of the Courage’s newer players, like Havana Solaun and Hailie Mace, who both saw limited time in 2020, to step up.
Solaun signed for the team midway through the Fall Series last year and only saw limited time, but the Jamaican international has impressed in preseason and could prove to be a vital member of the Courage’s midfield group. During the preseason, Solaun played slightly further back than she did in the limited time she got during the fall series, and that could be a position she plays more during the season, but Riley emphasized that he wants versatility from his midfielders.”
“One of the things about all our midfielders, and when we bring a midfielder in, you have to be prepared to play the 6, the 8 and the 10; you have to be prepared to play all three positions...” Riley said. “Havana had a good preseason, and she will be a big piece for us… The way we play and the way play through the midfield and the way we break the lines, she will revel in it. She is very good on the ball, a super intelligent player.”
With so many players missing and a tough opponent in the Washington Spirit, Saturday’s game will prove to be a good test for this new Courage group, and the opposing playstyles of the two clubs, with Washington holding onto the ball and the Courage pressing high up the pitch, should provide a fun game even for the neutrals.
The Courage’s Challenge Cup opener is set to kick off at 3:30 p.m. on April 10 and will be broadcast on Paramount+.