Perhaps the single biggest shock of 2022 – at least to me, who looks on them like Michael Myers in a Halloween flick; liable to pop up anywhere all the time just to scare the shit out of you – was not running into the Carolina Courage in postseason.
That’s probably because the Damned Courage, and the club that was its direct precursor and progenitor, the Western New York Flash, had not made the playoffs only twice before in ten years.
Regardless of how you feel about them, the Damned have been a constant playoff-grade outfit, title contender, and in so doing, a Portland menace.
So it felt somehow weird and wrong that the 2022 postseason was missing the….
North Carolina Courage
Year formed: 2017
Technically the team that plays in Cary was born January 2017.
But in fact the club was much older, the refugee Western New York Flash, a decade-old veteran club with titles in the USL, WPS, WPSL, and NWSL. The Sahlen family (more about them in a bit), who had put the club together in and around Rochester, New York, in the late Oughts, sold them lock, stock, and Debinha to the North Carolina Football Club that owned the then Carolina Railhawk men’s USL team.
The North Carolina outfit had big dreams of moving the men’s club into MLS and saw getting a top flight women’s side as part of that.
(It didn’t work; the men are now down in the fourth tier of the pro pyramid; USL “League One”. Ha. Sucks to be you, Railhawks!)
The 2017 Courage club started out with the squad that had won the league as Western New York the year before (and while we’re here…damn you to hell, Marco Vega!!!).
2017 – 16-7-1, 1st of 10, lost to Portland (revenge!) in the Final.
2018 – 17-1-6, 1st of 9, whipped Portland in the Final to become the first club to take both Shield and star.
2019 – 15-5-4, 1st of 9 and repeated the Double.
2020 – The only reason to even mention this awful season was the Thorns knocking Carolina out of the COVID Cup. Gotcha, you $%#$!!!
2021 – 9-9-6, 6th of 9. Knocked out in the quarterfinal by the eventual champion, Washington, which brings us up to date.
Owner: Stephen Malik
The owner of the Damned Courage is a hard guy to pin down. His Wikipedia entry consists of one sentence, identifying him as “…the owner and chairman of North Carolina FC of United Soccer League and North Carolina Courage of National Women’s Soccer League. He is also the founder & executive chairman of Medfusion.” MedFusion, by the way, is some sort of patient portal app, so presumably Malik is either some sort of tech guy, or someone who invests in medical tech.
Before his purchase the club had a record of kinda shady hiring and staff issues under the Sahlen family that had raised the team in Rochester and sold it to Carolina. The story I’ve heard is that Daddy Sahlen bankrolled the club so his soccer-playing kid could play on it (and she did…). Aside from the brief glory of the Sahlen Meat Bomber the Sahlen regime was kind of small-town-nepotism-shifty. Hiring Aaran Lines and then Riley (spit!) didn’t help that.
Obviously no one can tell the story of Western New York and North Carolina without the name of Paul Riley (spit!) who was hired to replace Lines in WNY, moved with the team in 2017, and managed them to two Shields and three championships.
The question has to be; did Malik know, and, if so, when did he know it? When the story broke in September 2021 the Malik and North Carolina organization claimed that they’d been fooled, fired Riley, and laid the blame on Paulson and the Thorns. At this point there’s no explicit reason to doubt Malik on this, but, like everything connected to this sorry tale, it’s hard not to be at least skeptical.
Other than that, there’s just last season to go on, and that’s not enough to say much of anything other than “generic owner”…tho the Debinha and Ordóñez deals and the Wingate pick are headscratchers. We’ll have to wait a bit and see how things go this year.
Head Coach: Sean Nahas
Nahas is a native born in New York. He had a brief college career in a small North Carolina school (something called “Queens University”) before moving into the Railhawks organization in 2007. He’s managed with the U.S. juniors as well as a longtime Riley (spit!) assistant. He was moved into the technical box after the firing and made permanent last season.
Last season was the worst this club has had since the Rochester years.
2022 – 9-8-5 (32 points; 7th of 12) 46GF 33GA +13GD
Season summary: The Damned dropped like a rock and was licking the Spoon by Matchday 3. The club stayed there, apparently hopeless, until back to back wins in August – over Chicago on MD 13 and Portland on MD 14:
From there the Damned went on an absolute tear; 5-2-1 over the last eight. It helped that their five victims included Gotham (twice), Orlando, Racing, and Angel City – both their losses came to playoff clubs (Seattle and Kansas City).
On the last day of their season the Damned played in San Diego and ground out a scoreless draw, then had to wait to see what Chicago could do.
Unfortunately for carolina the Red Stars did just enough; they ended with 33 points to the Damned’s 32, and so the lights went out in Cary.
Meetings with Portland: 8/5/22 (3-3 away draw), 8.24/22 (3-1 home win)
Outstanding players: Carolina is a team that has made players their names. Lynn Williams, Crystal Dunn, Ashley Hatch, Sam Mewis, Abby Erceg, Jess McDonald…the names are almost too many to remember.
The 2022 squad retained the biggest star, Debinha, as well as rookie sensation Diana Ordoñez. A sign of the desperation of the Damned roster woes was the re-signing of Jaelene (Hinkle) Daniels who had been dropped after making her loathing for the teams’ LGBT+ fans clear.
The thing that damn near floated Carolina’s season was that their two big scorers – Debinha and Ordoñez – tore the cover off the ball; their 46GF was second only to the Thorns.
What sank them? Their backline.
Here’s a look at Carolina in front of their own goal. I’ve included our Thorns and the league leading defense (ugh…Seattle’s. Okay. fine.) to use as a measure of the issues.
A couple of things jump out of this at me. First, the Carolina backline and DMs let a LOT of good chances go in (and if you look at the xG against poor Kate Rowland you’d be shocked that Rowland didn’t bang her defenders’ head against her goalposts before every game to wake them the fuck up; she was better than Murphy and they hosed her) and, second, that – as noted – Rowland is a better – much better – technical keeper than Casey Murphy. Like one-less-goal per-five-games better.
I’m not sure what Nahas saw in his keepers that the stats don’t show. But his first string keeper didn’t help a bad backline.
And bad backlines? They tend to ship crap goals and drop points, and boyfuckinghowdy did the Damned do that last season.
They couldn’t come from behind, either.
So every so often the devil comes to claim his due, and that was the Damned last season.
How did they score?
Debinha and Ordoñez. Period.
Those two knocked in 21 of the 33 run-of-play goals – more than 60% – and both PKs. Take them away and you got Racing.
So when those two ran cold, or got marked out of the match? Carolina was stone cold screwed.
And as we know since we talked about it with Houston, Ordóñez is gone. Now Debinha is gone, too, and we’ll have to see if the Damned have come up with a plan to deal with that.
How Did They Look?
Nahas seems to liked to throw the Damned out in a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-4-2; four of the five games I looked at featured one of the other. But within those sets he moved the bodies around quite a bit.
Here’s the Damned hosting Houston in mid-June, a wild affair that the visitors took 3-4:
This is the 4-2-3-1. Note the backline; Pickett at LB, Erceg and Kurtz the CBs, and Mathias at RB. With one exception this is it; the Damned backline was set in stone (yeah, and fucking sank like one, as we’ve discussed…)
Malia Berkeley makes her brief appearance alongside Denise O’Sullivan at DM, with Brianna Pinto and Kerolin (that’s the “K. Ferraz”) as wingers, Debinha in the ACM slot behind Ordoñez.
Now here’s the formation we saw here in the 3-3 draw in early August:
This is the oddball; what looks like a 4-3-3 with Brittany Ratcliffe and Ordoñez wingers in front of Debinha at center forward. Berkeley is still there but shifted to CM with Pinto wide right and O-Sullivan wide left. Williams replaces Mathias at RB.
When we saw them again about three weeks later, though, they’re all shifted around:
That’s a straight-up old-school 4-4-2. Kerolin and Ordoñez top, Debina as LM with Pinto at RM and O’Sullivan back inside along with Fuka Nagano (who was signed in July) in front of the usual back four.
It worked a treat – this was the 3-1 win that was Abby Smith’s only outing in ’22, remember – so it seems like Navas was willing to try it again.
Three weeks later, though, the visiting Seattle Reign saw this:
Still a 4-4-2 but now it’s Debinha and Kerolin up top, and Ordoñez has moved back to the LM Debinha spot. Nagano moves to RM, Pinto moves inside but swaps places with O’Sullivan in front of the usual crew in back.
Didn’t work, mind – Seattle took all three points in a 1-2 away win.
The last match I looked at is the last one of the Carolina season, the scoreless away draw in San Diego:
Back to the 4-2-3-1 we haven’t seen since June, only with 2022 draftee Tess Boade up top with Nagano right behind her at ACM, flanked by Kerolin and Debinha and…yep, the usual backline.
The thing about all this is that The Damned in 2022 were still the Damned that Riley (spit!) built and did Riley-Damned things in all of these formation – which is to say, fire away! Just uncork a shot every time you can and hope to hell something goes in.
When it did? Like the game before the one above (a 3-nil win over Gotham)…
…or the one before that (a 0-3 win at Orlando)…
…then the Damned would walk away with it. The Riley Mad Minute is painful for someone like me who treasures efficiency in striking. But it can and often has worked, and if it’s stupid and it works it’s not stupid.
When it didn’t, though like the final San Diego game in 2022?
They get nothing. That’s the weakness of the system; if you take a gajillion 0.01xG shots? All it takes is some bad luck, or a keeper stoning you, and you got nothing.
And The Damned got enough nothing last season to end up out of the playoffs.
Changes for 2023
The Riley Debacle shattered the late Teens championship team, however. Sam Mewis went to Kansas City in November 2021, and Debinha, Kristen Hamilton and Lynn Williams followed, Williams just this past month.
Just last week the Damned traded away Abby Erceg and Carson Pickett; sure, they got Emily Fox from Racing in return, but…
As we noted in discussing Houston, the Dash nicked midfielder Havana Solaun from Carolina, too. Merritt Mathias went to Angel City but the Damned got former Thorn Tyler Lussi in return. I like Lussi’s work ethic, but there’s a reason she’s now on her third club in something like four years.
Oh, and Jaelene Daniels hung ’em back up. Gee. That’s too bad.
Ordóñez gone. Debinha gone Erceg gone. That’s huge.
On draft day Carolina had a crap-ton of first round picks – four – and with the first one made perhaps the single weirdest pick of the 2023 draft:
Olivia Wingate (forward) – 1st round #6
Henderson went insane:
Even the broadcast crew was gobsmacked (“Olivia…who?” whispered one of them). I don;t have any idea what the hell Navas & Co. were thinking, but if they have a clue, good luck to them.
Meanwhile here were the others:
Sydney Collins (centerback, RB) – 1st round #8
Clara Robbins (ACM) – 1st round #9
Haley Hopkins (forward) – 1st round #11 and that was it; Carolina had nothing past the first round.
Henderson liked the other three, and it’s possible that they’ll help in 2023. Like all rookies, they’re utter unknowns. So…what the hell is Navas going to do with this crew?
How they’ll look next year?
Here’s what Henderson thinks. I’m going to throw it out there because it’s a good picture of how fucking nuts Carolina is right now:
And even that’s not nutty enough; Pickett and Erceg are still there.
No, here’s what I suspect we might see. I agree that it’s likely to be a 4-2-3-1 or something like it:
What is this goat rodeo going to do once on the pitch?
Will there be enough to make up for the goals lost to Houston and the Current? Will the backline do better to protect Murphy (or, better, Rowland, but this is Carolina, so it’s hard to say)?
Will this whole thing do better than it did for most of 2022, or is the final charge more typical of how well this group performs (the opponents suggest not…but still…). Is there even any way to compare this to 2022?
I hate to write these jokers off; for damn near a decade they’ve been the horror movie baddies, the Terminators of the NWSL. When you think they’re dead? They’re not.
But I dunno; this outfit looks like a real hot mess right now.
Last season was the final dead end for what had been the dynasty team of the NWSL for the past half-decade and a perennial playoff contender for the rest.
What will rise from the ashes?
I have no freaking idea.
I think this mob will be less than a 50-50 shot at the playoffs, but I’d keep a close eye on them in April and May. If they can beat some quality opponents? They might have a chance. But this is pretty much a damn-near-part-it-out grade rebuild, and those are hard to predict.
Will they be dangerous? They’re going to have to completely re-invent themselves, and I have no idea if they can. Given the turmoil, the losses, and the thrown-together nature of the current roster? So…no, I don’t think so. No more than a “generic NWSL opponent”.
Can the Thorns beat them? Yes. Unless Navas is a complete magician.
It seems intensely weird to lump The Damned in with “those other clubs”, the Louisville-Gotham sort of dross, but…well, right now they kind of are. They have to prove they’re playoff quality once more. Can they? I’m skeptical, but stranger things have happened. They came within a couple of points last season, and the coming season, like all futures, is yet unwritten.
Next up: Angels Fall