“Wildly inconsistent”: Why the NWSL playoffs may evade North Carolina Courage in 2021 – tactical analysis
The NWSL regular season is drawing to a close, with Portland Thorns, OL Reign and Washington Spirit already confirmed in the playoffs, whilst other clubs will be hoping to seal their places in the last round of fixtures. However, one team that may miss out is three-time NWSL Shield winners North Carolina Courage, who started the season well, but have won just once since 22 August. They look to have lost their confidence and have become wildly inconsistent at just the wrong time, and, while much-publicised off-field matters will have no doubt contributed to this, their poor run of results actually started before that, so there are definite problems on the pitch that need addressing.
This tactical analysis will focus on those on-pitch issues, with analysis of their attack and defence, and we will point out where they can improve ahead of the trip to Portland in their final regular game of the season; a game they simply have to win.
Final third play
The first thing to look at is their final third play, as they have lacked a clinical edge in front of goal recently, which has led to four out of their last eight games ending without them scoring.
The main problem is that, whilst they are creating plenty of chances for each other, North Carolina aren’t converting them. This would be understandable if they were shooting from difficult angles, but USA forward Lynn Williams, in the yellow circle here, shoots over the bar from in front of goal here. Brazil midfielder Debinha has done well to get behind the NJ/NY Gotham defence, setting up the chance for Williams, and these are the opportunities that North Carolina need to take. This was not the only bad miss for the home side in this game, and the fact that Gotham won 3-0 highlights how not taking their opportunities cost the Courage a crucial win against a rival in the playoff hunt.
Their movement is also not effective enough at times, meaning that, again, good chances are not taken. Here, right-back Merritt Mathias has advanced up the pitch with the ball, with three players ahead of her, in the red circles. However, none of them make a run into the box, where it would have been easy to get on the end of a cross from Mathias and potentially score. Instead, they hold their positions on the edge of the box, which makes it easier for Gotham to get between them and the goal. As a result, Mathias only has one option, which is to shoot at goal herself from this distance, and it goes over the bar.
This comes down to the Courage’s desire to make things happen in the final third. By not trying to get into the space marked by the yellow square, they didn’t ask Gotham any questions here, and this is another reason that they are struggling to score at the moment.
The two images shown already have identified problems that North Carolina caused for themselves. However, there have been occasions when their opponents’ work has limited their options, such as here, against Kansas City. We can see how the ball has been passed into the goal area, but two Kansas players have closed it down and ensured that the attacker is unable to get a shot away, whilst a pass is difficult. Whilst we must highlight Kansas’ defensive work in this game, which earnt them a scoreless draw, the fact that North Carolina couldn’t break them down, having beaten them 4-0 in their previous meeting, indicates the decline in the Courage’s recent play and results.
Whilst their final third play has been reasonably ineffective of late, it is North Carolina Courage’s passing that has let them down the most. This is an important aspect of the game, and they have lacked quality with the ball in both attacking and defensive situations.
This has mostly been down to poor decision-making at times, with this image showing one example of that. Debinha is running towards the goal area with the ball, and Lynn Williams and Jess McDonald have gone ahead to give her passing options behind the Gotham defence. Both are good attacking players when in form (although we know Williams wasn’t in this game), and so passing the ball to either player would have got North Carolina closer to the goal before taking the shot, which would have increased the probability of a goal being scored. However, Debinha doesn’t pass to either of them, instead shooting at goal herself, failing to find the net and ultimately wasting the opportunity.
The Courage’s tactics revolve around their key forwards moving into dangerous spaces in and around the opposing defence, as Williams generally does, whilst Debinha is tasked with taking the ball forwards and acting as the playmaker in attack, and this dynamic worked in the first half of the season.
However, they have looked less confident with this setup in recent games. This image shows Debinha passing forwards for midfielder Meredith Speck to run onto, but the Brazilian’s pass lacks quality, and Speck is unable to collect it and shoot at goal. This also gives Gotham more time to get behind the ball, as North Carolina’s momentum has been halted. Again, this highlights how the Courage’s blank in this game was not down to a lack of opportunities, but poor quality at key moments. This is not the only occasion that it happened either, which shows again the lack of self-belief and conviction that currently surrounds their on-field play.
It is the same story in defence too, as they have looked to build out from the back here, with two possible passing options available to them. The blue arrow shows the pass that was made, whilst the yellow arrow indicates the position of ex-Reading Women and Everton Women midfielder Angharad James, with the Wales international the better option here. This is highlighted by the three Houston Dash players closing in and forcing the mistake as soon as North Carolina make the pass, with the visitors instantly on the back foot as a result. Only a few passes later, Canada international Nichelle Prince crosses for England star Rachel Daly to score Houston’s second.
This goal could have easily been prevented if the Courage had made the right pass, and that is the key point here. Former West Ham United Women loanee Daly has been in fine form in recent games, and always poses a threat in the opposing box, so North Carolina played directly into her and the Dash’s hands with this bad decision.
This section has looked to show how North Carolina’s passing has been a major problem for them in the second half of the season, both in attack and defence. It is clear that, if they are to have a chance of making the playoffs this season, they need to improve in possession, as Portland like to attack quickly and tend to punish mistakes like these.
We have so far analysed North Carolina Courage’s attacking issues and passing problems, but we will now turn our attention to their defensive positioning, which has allowed their opponents to break through them too easily at times.
Here, Gotham midfielder McCall Zerboni has the ball on the edge of the North Carolina box but is initially unable to find a way through. This is the Courage players’ chance to get tight to her and win the ball back, but they instead allow Zerboni to move the ball towards the far side of the pitch. This is a poor mistake, as Zerboni’s pass reaches Caprice Dydasco, whose cross back into the box is turned into the net by Midge Purce.
The main point to make here is that North Carolina could have easily prevented this goal being scored, but two mistakes led to Gotham converting the chance. Firstly, the Courage needed to get tight to Zerboni as soon as her forward momentum stopped, as any pressure on the midfielder would have likely led to her making a mistake and conceding possession. The second error was that Dydasco was given time to receive the pass on the wing and pick her target in the middle, as she has provided the joint-second-most assists in the NWSL this season (five), so a goal was always likely as soon as she had received the ball here.
This image shows another time that the Courage failed to close the ball down, with Houston allowed to time their pass here under no pressure. The North Carolina player in the blue circle has been caught in two minds and is neither closing the ball down nor blocking the pass to Prince, who crosses into the box for former Birmingham City Women striker Brianna Visalli to score. Again, this goal could have been avoided, and it comes down once more to the Courage’s decision-making and individual errors, so eradicating these will give them a much better chance of beating Portland, especially as it will mean they can keep Thorns strikers Sophia Smith and Morgan Weaver in particular under control.
Carson Pickett has been one of the best attacking left-backs this season, dominating the left-wing for North Carolina and putting plenty of crosses into the middle. However, this image shows an error she made at the back, as she is positioned too far away from her teammate, leaving a gap open for Washington Spirit striker Ashley Hatch to exploit, playing the ball through to midfielder Ashley Sanchez. Whilst the Courage initially have a chance to win the ball back from the latter player, Pickett runs behind and not towards her, which makes it easier for Sanchez to get a shot away at goal.
The combination play between Hatch and Sanchez has been a critical reason for Washington’s good form in recent weeks, with Sanchez the creative playmaker in the team, whilst Hatch is the league’s top scorer this season with 10 goals, so allowing them to link up here was dangerous. Therefore, again, individual positional mistakes at the back were costing North Carolina, and this is something they need to look at in close detail.
This image shows a different way that they have left space open at the back, with Houston’s Prince in possession on the near side wing. The Courage players have stretched across the pitch to make it as big as possible, but what normally happens in defensive setups is that the defence and midfield get close to each other, making it difficult for their opponents to get between them and break them down. This is not the case here, though, as a large amount of space is open between the North Carolina players, and Prince is the type of player who likes to create problems for opponents and is just as adept at cutting inside as she is staying on the wing. Therefore, again, the Courage have caused their own problems with their poor positioning here.
In conclusion, this scout report has sought to find the reasons why North Carolina Courage have been in such bad form on the pitch. As mentioned, there are obvious off-field reasons for their lack of form, but they do also have parts of their performances that need improving, and tidying up the areas we have noted in this analysis would make them look a much better side. It should be noted that they are missing a few key players at the moment, including USA and ex-Manchester City Women midfielder Sam Mewis, but they have a well-rounded squad with quality all around the field, so this shouldn’t be an excuse. Their aim now needs to be bringing their key players together again, improving their decision-making and being more compact at the back, all of which will give them the best possible chance of winning at Providence Park and reaching the playoffs.