Hurricane Florence could put league-leading Courage at disadvantage in NWSL semifinals
Paul Riley has played and coached soccer in this country for three decades. A lilting Liverpool accent that lingers to this day places his roots elsewhere. It's why he understood the confusion when friends and family in England began to call or text him recently.
They were the same people who congratulated him when the North Carolina Courage team he coached clinched the best regular-season record in the National Women's Soccer League with more than a month of the schedule to spare. All these weeks later, they began reading that the Courage still had more work to do. To people like his cousin, it created a nonsensical riddle.
How'd you win the league by 15 points and you still haven't won the league?
North Carolina finished the regular season with a 17-1-6 record, its lone loss now nearly three months distant. It totaled more points (57), finished ahead of second place by a wider margin (15 points) and accumulated a better goal differential (+36) than any team in league history.
Just for good measure, it beat three-time reigning UEFA Women's Champion's League winner Lyon in the International Champions Cup in July.
In Abby Dahlkemper, Crystal Dunn and Sam Mewis, they could have as many as three starters for the U.S. in next year's World Cup. Riley is adamant Lynn Williams should be a fourth. New Zealand's Abby Erceg and Brazil's Debinha will likely add to the representation in France next summer.
"North Carolina is the best women's team that has played in a professional league in this country," Chicago Red Stars coach Rory Dames said. "They've statistically proven that. What they did this year is a credit to their team, their staff, how Paul has been able to motivate them."
In England and much of the soccer world, it would be a resume for the ages. In the United States, all it earns you is a home semifinal. Except perhaps when that game would be played amid the wet and windy remnants of Hurricane Florence, now bearing down on the Carolinas.
Then it might not even buy you that much.
Curious is the polite way to describe the league's handling of Sunday's semifinal between the Courage and Red Stars scheduled for Cary, North Carolina, a Raleigh suburb. The league announced Thursday it was moving their semifinal from Sunday to Tuesday (ESPNEWS, 9 ET) and from North Carolina to Portland, which is where the other semifinal between the Thorns and Seattle Reign will take place Saturday. The winners will remain in that city for the final on Sept. 22.
Yet that only underscores the curious burden we put on teams like the Courage to begin with.
The World Cup final offers winner-take-all stakes. So, too, do the Champions League and the FA Cup. But at least in the cases of the last two, those club competitions were always intended to complement league campaigns rather than subjugate them. When the Manchester City men's team ran away with the Premier League in historic fashion a season ago, it didn't have to then beat Riley's beloved Liverpool in 90 minutes designed to prove nine months weren't a mirage.
Here, the league recognizes the regular-season winner with an award, the NWSL Shield, but that hardly balances the scales in a sporting culture that places so much emphasis on postseason champions. Even for international players like Erceg, who offhandedly mentioned Wednesday that the playoffs are what players look forward to, it can be difficult to keep perspective. She won the Shield with the Courage a season ago but lost the final 1-0 against Portland.
"It's really hard sometimes to look back and not just think about playoffs and kind of define the entire season on those one or two games," Erceg said. "You have to remind yourself sometimes that you've had 20 games before that that you've done really well in. That can be difficult sometimes. I know last year it was, the loss in the final was so hard for the girls. For a period of time it's going to define how you summed up the season, it is hard to get past."
It should be challenging enough putting a season's worth of work on the line over 90 minutes against the Red Stars, who handed the Courage two of their draws and enjoy the services of two-time NWSL Golden Boot winner Sam Kerr and their own collection of U.S. national team regulars. Not to mention that the Courage will be without midfielder McCall Zerboni, an MVP candidate injured while playing for the U.S. in its most recent friendlies.
Add in the conditions. The game would have been played on a sloppy field with wind potentially blowing close to 30 miles per hour. Instead, it'll be somewhere other than Cary, where the Courage have drawn the biggest non-Portland crowds in the league.
Perhaps not eager to lend a voice to any effort to move the game, Riley said Wednesday that the weather was a non-factor in preparations. He said Friday, when the worst of the weather to reach Cary is expected to arrive, was a scheduled day off anyway. Erceg said there was more interest in weather reports, to be sure, but there wasn't much else players could do to prepare.
It's really hard sometimes to look back and not just think about playoffs and kind of define the entire season on those one or two games. You have to remind yourself sometimes that you've had 20 games before that that you've done really well in.Abby Erceg
Dames was less sanguine, stating his preferred resolution would be for the teams to play in Portland. Concerned about travel to the Carolinas, among other things, he said each player and staff member would ultimately have the freedom to decide for themselves if they felt safe going, no matter what the league decided.
"I don't think we're trying to have home-field taken away from North Carolina," Dames said. "I think we're trying to make sure everybody on our end is in a safe way and a safe situation and we're not putting ourselves at risk. And not just on the Sunday at kickoff, which is all everybody seems to want to talk about, but how we get there, how we fly there, where we fly into, do we take a bus? It's a very uncomfortable situation for everybody on our end."
To that point, postseason or otherwise, a soccer game is far from the most consequential matter facing the state of North Carolina. Yet the absurdity of a team's legacy riding on perhaps one kick of the ball would be all the more pronounced if that ball were buffeted by swirling winds before it splashed back to earth Sunday.
With an almost audible shrug, Riley struck the same note on that score as on the weather. These are things out of his control, just as they were when his fourth-place Western New York team, stocked with the core of the group that soon relocated to North Carolina, snuck in the playoffs in 2016 and walked away with the championship.
"I'm not sure we deserved to win; we certainly weren't the best team in the league that year," Riley said. "But they don't say that Western New York team wasn't very good that year, they say that was the champions that year."
Portland fans will certainly recall how the Thorns won the Shield that year. As the years pass, fewer and fewer others will remember that detail. It's the way we do things.
"It's down to two games," Riley said. "We were pretty consistent, which was important for us. We haven't really had a downturn during the season where we've been struggling, lost form. We've been pretty consistent, away from home and at home.
"Due to that consistency, you like our chances."
Against all comers on the field maybe. But a hurricane, too?