There is always something amusing when a sports league hails a match-up as a rematch of a previous year’s championship.Perhaps it is the novelty aspect to it; the idea that a specific match or series can be replicated down to the final detail, that whatever happened on that pitch or field or court can be redone.
But the truth about sports, and in life in many aspects, is that nothing can be ever be redone. What once happened can never be replicated because life is always moving forward and hopefully we are adapting and evolving. Sports teams are no different. Players and coaches come and go from one season to another and those teams will never be the same as those that took the field for the final.
Now sometimes changes are minor in these ‘rematches’. But in the case of the North Carolina Courage and the Washington Spirit the changes are far, far more pronounced. After dueling in one of the most fierce football matches in quite some time the two sides will met on Saturday at Maureen Hendricks Field at the Maryland SoccerPlex to kick off the 2017 National Women’s Soccer League season. The results were more of the same for Spirit supporters who saw their side go behind and eventually drop 1-0.
The Courage goal was scored by McCall Zerboni in the 18th minute off of a cross by Makenzy Doniak.
It is debatable which team has had more upheaval in the offseason but let’s go with the obvious: the North Carolina Courage were not the North Carolina Courage last season. They were the Western New York Flash last season, a side that won the NWSL title in spectacular fashion over the Spirit 3-2 on penalties. But the Flash were purchased in the offseason by North Carolina FC (NASL) owner Steve Malik, bringing in fresh questions about the viability of the league.
But, at least initially, things seems to be falling into place for the Courage. Malik and General Manager and President Curt Johnson have brought back pretty much the entire Flash roster, including forwards Lynn Williams and Jess McDonald midfielder Samantha Mewis and defenders Jaelene Hinkle and Abby Erceg. Their major addition was defender Yuri Kawamura, who has 17 caps with the Japanese national team. Under coach Paul Riley the hope is that Kawamura can improve upon a defense that allowed 26 goals last season.
Whether the Courage will need a strong defensive effort against the Spirit is very much up for debate. While the Courage’s changes have been focused for the most part off the pitch, Washington’s changes are much more evident on the pitch. To say that the club made a few changes would be an understatement. Since that difficult against the Flash in November Spirit supporters have had to say goodbye to defenders Ali Krieger and Megan Oyster, midfielder Christine Nairn, and forwards Crystal Dunn, Estefania Banini, and Diana Matheson.
The numbers are quite astounding in terms of how much of an impact those six players had on the Spirit’s 2016 campaign. Combined the six made 88 appearances and 77 starts for the Spirit and scored 15 of their 30 goals last season. When you add in the losses of forward Caprice Dydasco, midfielder Cali Farquharson, and goalkeeper Kelsey Wys who will miss at least the start of the season due to injury it seems as if this might be a long season at the ‘Plex.
On Saturday the biggest loss for the Spirit was undoubtedly Joanna Lohman. Lohman tore her ACL during the match will miss the remainder of the season. The loss of Lohman deals a significant blow to the Spirit midfield.
But one of the interesting things from last season that coach Jim Gabarra did was give players a chance to start when their top players (like Dunn, Krieger, and Matheson) were at the Olympics. Players like Francisca Ordega, Katie Stengel, and Cheyna Williams proved their value last season when the club needed them. Now the question is can they do it as full-time starters?
In terms of offseason additions probably the biggest acquisition was that of Kristie Mewis. Mewis, 26, comes to the Spirit after having played the past three seasons with the Boston Breakers. While playing with the Breakers Mewis was primarily used as a winger, creating chances for forwards to seize upon inside the box. Stengel last season was at her best when Dunn would take some of the pressure off of her and give her a window to operate. It is very much a German model of organizing an attack, something that both Mewis and Stengel will be familiar with having spent time at Bayern Munich.
The one bright spot for the Spirit on Saturday was the play of Stephanie Labbe. Labbe made eight saves on the day and assisted a Spirit defense that at times was a bit under siege. Carolina took nine shots on goal compared to the Spirit’s zero. Although it was a bit of a one-sided affair credit to both Labbe and the Spirit for holding a close line.
Opening day matches are often poor indicators of how a team will fare during a season. Teams adapt and evolve and more often than not look better than the initial product. So whether the Spirit and the Courage improve seems to be a given. The real question is how much and how quickly these changes will occur.
Beer of the week: Killian’s Irish Red Ale. This match felt very much like a preseason match, a match where things can be tested out and the rust can be knocked off. You never want to start the tailgating season with a strong beer. Go light and work your way in.
North Carolina Courage