Courage back in playoffs after trying final month | Sports

Courage back in playoffs after trying final month | Sports

The North Carolina Courage are back in the playoffs. While that is far from an unfamiliar place for the two-time National Women’s Soccer League champions, a spot in the playoffs seemed increasingly unlikely over the last few weeks.

As the players have gotten back to soccer in the weeks following the firing of the team’s head coach, interim head coach Sean Nahas has seen them not only fight for a spot in the playoffs, but reestablish a passion for playing.

“I feel there’s a new sense of just confidence, but they have a passion for the game again,” Nahas said. “It was almost taken away from them for a bit. There’s no expectations. We’re almost playing with house money. People doubted us. And for me, what I’ve said to the group is, ‘We’re in and we have a chance just like everybody else has.’”

The fight for the playoffs has been anything but easy for the Courage, both on and off the field.

“It’s been hard,” Nahas said. “It’s been really, really hard. But, [the players have] been brilliant. … And the best part is that they’re excited to be out here. And that’s the most important thing. Whereas four weeks ago? I couldn’t. I don’t know. And I feel the staff and the club has allowed that opportunity but man, if you guys saw from day one to where they are now, it’s two different groups.”

While the group has an established history of playoff success, the Courage are in a place they have rarely been. Doing just enough in their final game, and getting some help from its first round opponents, the Courage are firmly the underdogs in their matchup with the Washington Spirit.

“Playoff Courage is a little bit different than regular season Courage,” said Lynn Williams. “We keep talking about 2016. I’m getting 2016 vibes when we’re Western New York and we had no business of being in the playoffs and somehow won. … I think that the beauty of making it to the playoffs is it’s basically a whole different season. You just forget everything that happened and it’s game by game, day by day. So that’s kind of our focus. Our discussion is just, ‘It doesn’t have to be pretty, you just have to win.’”

Across the season as a whole, the Courage’s offense hasn’t been clicking like it has in previous years. While some of that can be attributed to the formation fiddling of “the man who must not be named,” the Courage have only scored two goals in their last four games. But after a good week of training and an energy boost from making the playoffs, the offense is poised to start firing on all cylinders again.

“I think right now it seems to be clicking a bit more,” Williams said. “We did finishing today and I think it went really well, and it looks like everybody is having a good time, having fun. So like I said, at the end of the day, you just have to win these games. Playoffs is a whole different beast. And it doesn’t have to be pretty, the ball just has to go in the back of the net. So hopefully we do that more times than they do.”

As for the Spirit, Washington had its own interesting route into the playoffs. Having to forfeit two games due to COVID-19 issues, the Spirit still managed to clinch a hosting spot and are riding high heading into the playoffs.

From Golden Boot winner Ashley Hatch, a former first-round draft pick of the Courage, to rookie of the year favorite Trinity Rodman, the Spirit has plenty of ways to punish a defense. 

Throughout the last few games, the Courage haven’t given up many goals through normal buildup play but have been punished on individual mistakes. With Washington’s ability to go direct, as it proved with Rodman’s goal that secured the Courage’s spot in the playoffs, the Courage backline can’t afford any of those individual errors. 

For center back Kaleigh Kurtz, the key in stopping that directness is identifying Washington’s patterns.

“Typically, Sam Staab goes over the top more than Emily Sonnett, if they’re both healthy and that’s the lineup that they choose to play,” Kurtz said. “There’s signals when Sam Staab might hit it long. She’s gonna look up and then she’s gonna look down at the ball and then the leg starts swinging back. [Abby Erceg] and I especially need to be on high alert, making sure we see that and then dropping off early, because we need to absorb the space and not get into foot races with Ashley Hatch, Trinity Rodman and whoever else their third partner is out there.”

Heading into the matchup, the Courage have looked good in training. Taking to the field on the cold and damp morning of Thursday, Nov. 4, the Courage had one of their better sessions, according to Nahas.

“I think we look really, really sharp,” Nahas said. “There’s a complete focus, I almost think the players, as you saw from last week, we weren’t sure if we’d even be in the situation. So the fact that we are, it’s been a new life in many ways. There’s no lose mentality for us, just in terms of how we approach things. But just the overall focus of the group, the energy of the group, for the first time in a long time, there just seems to be such a joy about the group.”

There was one notable absence from Thursday’s training session, with the team’s marauding left back, and NWSL defender of the year nominee, Carson Pickett missing. After training, Nahas said that Pickett woke up feeling a bit under the weather, and with the weather the way it was, they chose to have her stay home and not make it worse before the game.

The Courage’s first-round showdown with the Spirit is set for 5:30 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 7 at Audi Field in Washington, D.C. and will be streamed on Paramount+.

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