The Utah Royals FC hosted North Carolina Courage in week 15 of the NWSL at the Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah. North Carolina Courage were four points behind the league leaders, Portland thorns. Utah were two spots out of playoff contention and were not looking to slip too far down the table.
Utah Royals were showing great promise with wins against the leaders Portland thorns in June and July, while the pressure was on North Carolina who suffered a defeat at the hands of the Chicago Red Stars in their previous game. In this tactical analysis, we provide an analysis of the tactics and look at how both teams played each other out in this NWSL fixture.
The Utah Royals are coached by Laura Harvey, currently the only female coach in the NWSL. Harvey lined up Utah with a 4-3-1-2 with FIFA Women’s World Cup winner Christen Press and Amy Rodriguez leading the attack from the front. At the back, Rachel Corsie paired up with Becky Sauerbrunn.
Paul Riley played North Carolina as a 4-4-2 on paper but there were a lot of dynamic rotations that made their tactics very attacking during the game. Kristen Hamilton partnered Jessica McDonald at the front. Debinha and Crystal Dunn were the attacking midfielders who often tucked inside allowing fullbacks to overlap and attack the flanks. Denise O’Sullivan was the box-to-box midfielder while Samantha Mewis played a very deep holding role in building up play from the back.
Utah celebrate early
It was the home fans who made early noise with Christen Press wasting no time to put the western side up. Press has been the focus of attention in the past few weeks with her entertaining performances during the World Cup in France and after. It wasn’t a surprise that Utah looked to capitalise on her incredible form against a strong side such as North Carolina Courage.
The strategy from the start was to get the ball early to Press or Rodriguez and put direct pressure upon the North Carolina defence. Veronica Boquete Giadans held responsibility as the number 10 for Utah to link play between a low defensive block and the two Utah strikers. Once the midfielders progressed with the ball into the North Carolina half, they sought out press in good positions outside the opposition penalty box. North Carolina were looking to patiently build-up from the back, but the threat of Press and Rodriguez was quite high and it wasn’t until 20 minutes into the first half that they were able to establish their rhythm.
North Carolina liked to use their fullbacks high and attacking. The two central defenders would then split wide into the half-spaces and Mewis would drop between them as a deep-lying playmaker. This left a lot of ground in the middle for O’Sullivan to cover. Utah targeted this fertile ground to unleash Press. Drawing the attack on, Utah waited for North Carolina to error and connect an early pass to Press in plenty of space.
North Carolina’s positional changes
Although with 45.6% North Carolina’s possession in this game was lower than Utah’s 54.4%, they had plenty of positional changes to match Utah with numerical superiority in their pressing. During possession, Mewis joined the central defenders who moved wide forming a back three.
Utah wanted to secure their midfield defensively by having three players who did not push too high. In order to overcome this numerical advantage that Utah had, Riley had his wide midfielders tuck inside. Along with O’Sullivan who played as a traditional number eight, North Carolina were able to match Utah by numbers in the midfield. The fullbacks pressing high added to their numerical superiority in Utah’s half. The forwards Hamilton and McDonald were always positioned higher up to quickly organise a counter and have options to play forwards.
In this way, North Carolina were cleverly able to match Utah in all parts of the pitch with excellent positional play. This was mainly possible because of the quality of players in midfield and pace on the wings.
North Carolina’s high press
Paul Riley wanted to cut the supply to Press after conceding early on. North Carolina engaged in a high, aggressive press from the top with their strikers Hamilton and McDonald. Dunn and Debinha would invert and tuck inside to put pressure on the three central midfielders. The fullbacks, Jaelene Hinkle and Merritt Mathias would push high and press the opposing fullbacks.
During the first half, North Carolina would use their two strikers in a more isolated role from the midfield to put pressure upon the Utah defenders as they played out from the back. The keeper, Barnhart was forced to boot the ball long with Utah looking to win the second balls instead, after an uncomfortable quarter-hour of looking to build play out from the back.
A high press in this fashion closed down the spaces for Utah in their own half. Nicole Barnhart, the Utah keeper looked uncomfortable and wasn’t confident with her distribution which North Carolina consistently looked to punish. North Carolina was very effective in using players to close down the spaces higher up the pitch but this left Christian Press unmarked in wide areas that Utah looked to quickly exploit upon winning the ball. It was a risk Riley chose to take, but it paid off with his side equalising with a goal from Hamilton.
Neutralising Christen Press
With Mewis slotting in between the central defenders to form a back three, it became exhausting for the Utah forwards to constantly apply pressure. The North Carolina Irish international O’Sullivan was moved to the right to cut the passing lanes to Christen Press while staying close to Giadans to cut the supply.
Having kept Press at bay in this way, Harvey shifted her to the other side by swapping with Rodriguez. On the right side, however, Press saw more of the ball and played a deeper role. She no longer carried the same threat in front of the North Carolina zone 14 as she did in the initial minutes. Although Utah managed to progress up the field with their left-back Kelly O’Hara offering width and pace down the left side, North Carolina did an effective job of denying them lots of time on the ball.
Utah’s weakness in this game which was evident was the responsibility upon the central defenders Corsie and Sauerbrunn to play the game from the back. It came with plenty of pressure as in many instances they found themselves in a 2v2 situation with Hamilton and McDonald.
Overall, Utah were superior to North Carolina in terms of passes and pass accuracy. They made 472 passes in comparison to the visitors’ 391. But North Carolina were more effective and efficient with their pressing and capitalised on their chances.
Changes in the second half
With Corsie looking nervous and hesitant to play out against such aggressive pressing from North Carolina, the visitors came stronger in the second half with their attack. In one such moment, it was Hamilton again who won the physical duel and found McDonald in open space to assist her for the second. Having secured a vital lead, North Carolina now focused on working more defensively by having their forwards effectively trackback.
Crystal Dunn is used to playing as a left-back for the USWNT. But in this game, we saw her start as a wide midfielder who tucked in and played as a number 10. In the second half, Riley looked to involve her more by giving her the license to roam around, drop deeper and construct plays between the lines. In this sense, North Carolina’s strength came as a result of constantly having two number 10’s in the form of Dunn and Debinha.
It was obvious that Mewis was the focus of starting the attack for North Carolina in the first half. Harvey had Lo’eau Labonta man-mark Mewis during the second half. Along with Press and Rodriguez, now it was Utah who were looking to press high in search of their second goal.
Stengel – a potential wildcard used too late?
Just fifteen minutes until the final whistle, Harvey brought on Katie Stengel as an attacking reinforcement. It is an understatement to say that her introduction reversed the roles in the game. She found herself at the end of a host of attacks and almost managed to equalise for the home side. Utah managed 12 shots with seven on goal during the game. A majority of them came in the final minutes after bringing on Stengel.
Stengel offered a lot of unpredictability against the North Carolina defence. Her ability to sense a lucrative situation in the attack took off pressure from Press who was being double-marked. The players around her like Rodriguez and O’Hara were also able to effectively create chances. The few minutes that she came on for Utah made a significant difference to their attacking play although they did not manage to score and the game ended with McDonalds’ goal in the second half giving the edge for North Carolina over Utah.
North Carolina were the better side overall especially in terms of the quality they fielded in the centre from where they controlled the game. They were always first to win the second balls and showed great character off the ball. Their high press was quite successful in keeping a dangerous side like Utah silent for most of the game and frustrating the back. The versatility and positional intelligence offered by players like Dunn and Mewis is what made Riley’s side stand out.
Utah are a force to be reckoned with, especially with the quality of a player like Christen Press who can easily punish errors of the finest margin. Laura Harvey’s performance was commendable but it was difficult to keep possession and play out from the back with the quality of midfielders she currently has. A more direct game involving Press is perhaps the better option against stronger teams. Katie Stengel, on the other hand, is a gem of a player with a unique quality to ‘smell blood’ in the final third. It is natural that after her performance for the few minutes that she played in this game, fans will expect to see more of her with this Utah side.
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