Sports

The soccer team in our own backyard that may be having the best summer in American sports

A cheer went up as Heather O’Reilly reached one section of the stands after the game, where a group of eager fans awaited her autograph. She’s the new big name on the NC Courage, the former UNC and national-team star, arrived only two weeks ago, and as much as her name may resonate both at WakeMed Soccer Park and beyond, the truth is the Courage was doing just fine before she got here.

The best team in the NWSL continues to get better, whether it’s adding the experience of a 33-year-old Olympian in O’Reilly or being relatively dissatisfied with a comfortable 2-0 win over the Washington Spirit on Wednesday because the performance did not reach the impossibly high standards this team has set for itself.

It’s not even close. With seven games to go in the season, the Courage is 13 points ahead of the nearest competition, having lost only once in 17 games. The Courage is so far ahead of the league, it could potentially clinch first place on Aug. 5, with more than a month to go in the season.

Coming off a title two years ago before the team moved south and a regular-season championship and title-game loss last season, the Courage is a dynasty in the making, enjoying a summer that has somehow exceeded even their own realistic expectations – so far.

“We don’t really set our standards off what the rest of the league is doing,” Courage captain Abby Erceg said. “We set our standards on what we’re capable of. We always want to get better, and that’s been our philosophy from the start. As long as we’re focused on that, we’re good. It’s when we drop to the standards of any other team, that’s perhaps when we don’t measure up to what we want to do.”

Or, just as Jess McDonald put Wednesday’s win away with the Courage’s second goal, she also delivered the exclamation point: “We are the team to beat.”

After last season’s runner-up finish, the Courage started adding star power to its collection of up-and-coming players – first the sublime Crystal Dunn, now O’Reilly – and has somehow managed to outflank the entire league in terms of both tactics and talent. The players who aren’t already stars for the United States or their home countries are playing their way into contention.

Already working under the lens of a documentary film crew, the Courage will play under an even bigger spotlight later this month in the International Champions Cup in Miami – facing Paris St. Germain, Manchester City and Olympique Lyonnais in a first-ever tournament that, since it will be preseason for the European teams and the Courage will presumably be missing several U.S. national-team players, will give the winner a tenuous claim as the best women’s club in the world.

The Courage may be having the best summer of any team in American sports, and there’s still room for it to get better.

“We didn’t expect to be in this position,” Courage coach Paul Riley said. “I don’t think anyone would expect to be in this position.”

The team is built around a quadrilateral foundation of two attacking and two holding midfielders, around which forwards and fullbacks fizz fluidly. The gate-keeping midfield line of McCall Zerboni and Denise O’Sullivan has emerged as such a dominant collective force that 2017 U.S. female player-of-the-year finalist Sam Mewis has been given as much time as she needs to recover from an offseason knee injury.

The four attackers, midfield and otherwise, all figured on the Courage’s two goals Wednesday. O’Reilly, pressed into service out of position at left back because of an injury to Jaelene Hinkle, played all 90 minutes in her full Courage debut while Merritt Mathias, storming out of the back on the right, was a persistent attacking threat.

The Courage could easily have scored more than two goals, while limiting the struggling Spirit to one sincere chance, and yet there was a general air of dissatisfaction with the overall performance, a languid first half in particular. A challenge was issued at halftime and a response was delivered, which is kind of the way the homestretch will play out for the Courage, given their perch in the standings. Their biggest competition, and at the moment their only competition, is any complacency that might slip into their game.

“It may seem that our season has been absolutely perfect, but to us, it’s not,” McDonald said. “There’s still time and space and plenty of room for us to improve as well.”

The Courage may wear a target for the rest of the league, but their only target is a title. After last season, and after this summer of dominance, nothing less is going to be good enough for this group.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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