By cultivating winning culture, North Carolina Courage head back to NWSL title game
CARY, N.C. -- How long does a seed need to take root? How long to settle into the soil and flourish not just for a summer but season after season? Simultaneously one of the newest and best teams in American professional sports, the North Carolina Courage provide their answer game by game.
Challenged to be more than a bully after surrendering a late lead in a semifinal against Reign FC, the Courage responded with a 4-1 win in extra time. They answered with an imperfectly emphatic display of a culture of success that was put in place many miles away but flourishes here.
A product of the University of North Carolina and the U.S. women's national team, perhaps the two most successful programs in the history of women's soccer, Heather O'Reilly now plays for the Courage in her final professional season. She knows what culture looks and feels like. And she knows what surrounds her now with a team that is officially just three years old.
"There's a mutual love, respect and work ethic, and I think that's actually really special," O'Reilly said after the semifinal win. "I've been part of a lot of really special teams, in terms of the intangibles. But I think that this group kind of beats all, in terms of everybody works for each other. There's no egos. It's all about accountability and doing your part for the team. It's really a nice environment to be part of."
The trophies don't hurt, either. NWSL Shield winners three years running as regular-season champions, the Courage now face the Chicago Red Stars in next Sunday's title game with a chance to add a second consecutive playoff trophy to the haul of hardware.
O'Reilly's penalty kick late in regulation Sunday appeared to give the Courage a deserved, if grueling, win against a Reign FC team that lived up to its reputation as a group stubbornly unwilling to accept that injuries and absences should have long ago scuttled its season.
After piling up possession, shots and corner kicks by the bushel, the Courage finally found the goal to take them to a fourth consecutive championship game when O'Reilly converted her kick from the spot in the 88th minute. Except it didn't turn out to be quite that neat. With seconds to play in stoppage time beyond the 90th minute, the Reign found their equalizer.
The Courage trudged toward coach Paul Riley in the break, aware that all the work of the previous 90 minutes was now moot. The season hung on the infinitesimally small sample of extra time, when one bad bounce or one ill-timed tackle could undo months of preparation.
"To be honest you, when they came over, the message wasn't tactical -- we go back to our original shape, and we just get at them," Riley said. "I just told them, 'You've got to get your heads up, just go at it, and do what we do best,' which is put teams under pressure."
If the Courage printed their own money, those final words might as well be the motto on the coinage. It was what they did in the second minute, when Lynn Williams raced down the left sideline and delivered a pass that Crystal Dunn nearly turned into an early goal. It was what Williams still did when she chased the ball deep into the second half and eventually delivered the cross that smacked off Lauren Barnes' hand to draw the penalty kick O'Reilly converted.
It is what Williams and the rest have done since before they played on an immaculate field in Cary, since back when so many of them played for Riley on the Western New York Flash. Six of Sunday's starters also started for the Flash when they won a title in penalty kicks against the Washington Spirit in 2016.
That mix of raw youth, including current U.S. starters Sam Mewis and Abby Dahlkemper, and quietly committed veterans such as Abby Erceg and Jessica McDonald found a coach who believes that results follow culture when the Flash hired Riley that season.
"We made training much more important than housing, than medical, than everything else," Riley said of the problems that previously plagued that franchise. "I think previous year, the training had been the least important. Players are fine if they have a great training environment, so I just concentrated on that, making that fun, making that inspirational almost.
"Something they could put their hands around and say, 'I can get better today.'"
More than immediate results, it offered the players a collective identity, one that held through a sale and move south.
"At first, it was just like we pressed, and we pressed high," Mewis said. "That led into this idea of we're going to work harder than everyone else, and we're going to run the suicide mile every month, and we're going to be the fittest team. That led to the way we can play now, and it's this aggressive style. The culture has come from the soccer, and it's come from the top down."
Mewis didn't have to complete many of the devilish conditioning runs this season, spared by international duty with the United States. But those who stayed behind through the heat of the North Carolina summer ran them -- even as the Courage kept an iron grip on first place.
The culture is strong enough, Riley brags, that the Courage could add the most malignant of malcontents and see her pulled into line by the players around her. He notably hasn't tested the theory, instead bolstering the original core with far more amenable souls such as Dunn and Debinha, the Brazilian who scored the go-ahead goal in extra time on a blistering free kick that made her 28th birthday that much more memorable.
"Our playing style is a reflection of how much we care about each other and how much hard work is in the DNA of this team," Mewis said. "It's also just really fun to play with this group."
They scored more and allowed fewer goals than any team this season. Just like last season. They stepped out of the league for the second year in a row to go toe-to-toe with the likes of Lyon in the International Champions Cup. They played on without World Cup participants such as Mewis and Dunn and got strong seasons from Kristen Hamilton and Cari Roccaro.
"I think the hardest thing to be in football is consistent," Riley said. "As you can see with Manchester City's [inconsistency] this year and stuff, that consistency is very difficult to keep year after year after year. I think it takes a lot more every year to do it, to be honest."
That makes Chicago a fitting opponent for this final, even at the expense of what would have been the third championship installment of the rivalry between North Carolina and the Portland Thorns. The Red Stars represent an almost unbroken model of consistency, an independent franchise always just good enough to narrowly miss out on the glory.
Four times in a row they made the playoffs before this season. And four times they fell in the semifinals. That changed with Sunday's 1-0 win against the Thorns, with Sam Kerr the goal scorer.
The Courage had to rebound from a bad moment Sunday. The Red Stars had to rebound from bad endings four years in a row. Their presence in Cary for the final this year is proof of a culture strong enough to withstand that. Proof that what they built around young U.S. national players and wise drafting has strong roots -- if also proof that acquiring Kerr never hurts.
But one more win won't come easily. Not against this opponent.
"We knew we had to give them something," said Reign FC's Valtko Andonovski, who showed even in defeat the preparation that makes him the front-runner to lead the U.S national team. "I thought that for the most part we did a decent job. We knew we were going to face shots from distance and around the box. We knew we were going to have to defend crosses -- that's what we choose.
"We made it interesting the first 90 minutes, but we just couldn't hang on. They're great. They're awesome. Best team in the league, hands-down."
Not just the most talented. Not just the most athletic. The best because of what was planted and started to take root even before they arrived here.
Like O'Reilly, Mewis knows what it is like to carry on a tradition others built. She did it at UCLA, helping that College Cup regular win its first title. She did it with the U.S. national team, helping it win a fourth star this summer in France. Here she saw what it was to build that from scratch.
She saw it take root.
"What we've been through together as a group has really solidified what it is that this team does and what it is that we're about," Mewis said. "And it's given us a really clear path."