Thorns FC NWSL Preview | North Carolina's Crystal Dunn gamble and more to watch for in the season opener

At the end of the 2017 NWSL season, the North Carolina Courage clearly had a good thing going. They may have lost to Thorns FC in the league’s Championship game, but they did so by the thinnest of margins, falling 1-0 to a Lindsey Horan goal. Coming of a first-place finish in the regular season, and with a young squad that had reached in its second-straight final, North Carolina had the best long-term outlook of any team in the NWSL.

This offseason, though, the franchise decided to gamble. It’s a small wager, one with limited risk and, potentially, a high return, but it was still a bet on something new, one that cost the Courage a top forward prospect as well as an international-caliber defender.

That was the price to bring Crystal Dunn back to the NWSL, with North Carolina giving the Washington Spirit Ashley Hatch and Taylor Smith to bring the 2015 league MVP back from England. That season, Dunn torched the league for 15 goals, led Mark Parsons’ Spirit into the postseason, and invigorated an international career that had been sidetracked by her exclusion from the U.S.’ 2015 World Cup squad.

Apart from Parsons, though, Dunn has been unable to capture her MVP form. In her final season in Washington, Dunn was an integral part of a team that qualified for the 2016 Championship game, but she was also limited to two goals and five assists in 13 appearances. While in England with Chelsea FC, Dunn only posted three goals in 15 league appearances, albeit while often playing a wingback’s role.

It’s a similar role to what Dunn recently played for the U.S. Women’s National Team, whose injury situation forced her to start at left back for the final game of the recent SheBelieves Cup, but the positional uncertainty only adds to North Carolina’s gamble. If the team is getting the Crystal Dunn that laid waste to the NWSL three years ago, it’s a justifiable move. If that Dunn was a product of that moment, though, the gamble looks far riskier.

Consider, too, where North Carolina sat at the end of last season. Their backline was led by their captain, veteran Abby Erceg, but it was built on three young, international-caliber talents: Abby Dahlkemper, Smith, and Jaelene Hinkle – all 24 years old. Samantha Mewis (25) was an MVP-in-waiting in midfield, while Lynn Williams (24) and Hatch (22) gave the team two strikers to rely on for the foreseeable future.

With such a young, proven core, the team didn’t need to make any drastic moves. Yet Crystal Dunn was still out there, and the team had just come off a title-game loss. Add in the ever-improving landscape of the NWSL, and you do see some reason to gamble.

For North Carolina, the payoff could be the most impressive attacking duo in the NWSL, if not NWSL history. With Dunn and Williams, the Courage have two former MVPs, both with a type of physicality that could prove ferocious. By size, neither is overly imposing, but the raw speed and relentlessness the pairing uses to torment opposing defenses could prove potent, potentially even moreso than the Williams-Jessica McDonald partnership that led the Western New York Flash to the 2016 title. Against a league that tends to play with two center backs, the Courage can expect to spend much of their season near the opponent’s penalty box.

The downside risk, though, is disrupting something that wasn’t broken. Although by age (25) and style, Dunn looks like an ideal fit, she is still replacing somebody who is three years younger and scored seven times in her rookie season – the exact number of goals Dunn has scored in three years apart from Parsons. After taking over for McDonald in the Courage’s starting lineup last season, Hatch proved to be a perfect fit for Riley’s approach, giving him a proven partnership that he could leverage into Hatch and Williams’ primes. With any personnel move, there is a risk a player simply doesn’t fit, but Dunn will have to do more than merely settle in if she’s to offset Hatch’s potential.

As early as this year, Hatch could be a more productive player than Dunn, and while that wouldn’t preclude the new Courage attacker being successful in her own right, it would mean North Carolina sacrificed one of the more valuable assets in the NWSL.

Although it’s unclear there was ever gap between the Courage and Thorns, North Carolina was aggressive in making up ground. While that entails some risk, the Shield holders are rightly seen as one of the favorites to claim this year’s title. 

What to watch for on Saturday (12:30pm PT, Lifetime)

  • The style of play in last year’s title game came up again on this week’s season preview conference call, with Parsons acknowledging the match wasn’t easy on the eyes. To the extent the lack of scoring was part of that, two key defense absences could. Thorns center back Emily Menges is listed as out on the league’s injury report (stress reaction) while Erceg is listed as questionable (hip).
  • Also missing for the Courage will be Samantha Mewis, who is continuing her recovery from a knee strain. Thorns forward Tobin Heath will also miss the season-opener as she continues her return from offseason ankle surgery.
  • As much as the Thorns defense will have to worry about Dunn and Williams’ energy, the Courage will have to deal with the same kind of pressure, likely being provided by Mallory Weber and Ifeoma Onumonu. The duo started all three games at forward in the Thorns Spring Invitational presented by Tillamook Yogurt, and although they have combined for only one career NWSL goal, their energy executing the Thorns’ high press will rival what the Courage will offer.
  • One place where the Thorns will have to be wary is the attacking presence of Hinkle, who is one of the league’s best crossers of the ball from her left back position. If all goes well for Portland, though, Hinkle may have her hands full at the other end of the field, dealing with a Portland wing back, Midge Purce, who looks intent on maintaining an attacking mindset despite her new position.
  • Ultimately, though, like so many soccer games, this rematch may be decided in the middle of the park. In last fall’s title game, Lindsey Horan set a tone early and often, physically imposing herself on the Courage’s midfield. On Saturday, that midfield will be without its best player (Mewis), forcing another Best XI standout, McCall Zerboni, to carry a bigger load. Against a Horan, Celeste Boureille, Christine Sinclair triangle, that may be too much to shoulder, particularly of Boureille’s W-League form continues into her third NWSL season.