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Match preview: can Boston get one back on North Carolina?

Can Boston’s new roster defeat the Courage’s more experienced team?

The Boston Breakers will face the North Carolina Courage for the first time tomorrow at Jordan Field. Except this is no brand-new meeting; you’ll remember the Courage were formerly the Western New York Flash before they were sold to North Carolina FC’s ownership and moved south. And in 2016, these were scorelines for WNY vs Boston: 4-0, 7-1, 2-2, 4-0. WNY outscored Boston by 17 to 2. Matt Beard called that 7-1 loss “the lowest point in my football career.” And now NC is back with a new name and a new uniform, but basically the same roster and same coach.

Other teams in NWSL have been struggling for consistency, but not NC. They are the team to beat at the moment, having beaten Washington, Portland and Orlando already. Their offense, led by Lynn Williams, is constantly dangerous. Their midfield, led by Sam Mewis, is incredibly disruptive. Their defense, led by Abby Erceg, is exploitable, but Boston will have to get the ball into their attacking third in the first place. The Thorns, for all that their midfield had the likes of Amandine Henry, Lindsey Horan, and Allie Long working for it, couldn’t manage to build a rhythm against NC. And that spells trouble for Boston, who have thus far relied a lot on their midfield to keep them going.

Boston’s midfield triumvirate of Rose Lavelle, Rosie White, and Angela Salem will have to be on their toes. Lavelle in particular is about to get a real welcome to NWSL as she’ll be dealing with former Breaker McCall Zerboni. Perhaps she’ll be able to shrug off Zerboni. Perhaps Zerboni will put a body or a tackle on her every time she has the ball at her feet. We’ll see. As much as Lavelle has been steadily increasing her presence in games, NC is the midterm exam compared to previous quizzes.

Beard might consider trying to avoid Zerboni and Mewis in the midfield as much possible, pushing play to the flanks through Allysha Chapman and Julie King. We’ve seen that the team can press forward this way, while also dropping Angela Salem between Megan Oyster and Christen Westphal to reinforce the back line. Fullback Jaelene Hinkle is also out for NC with injury; perhaps Boston will try to exploit NC’s left side, which could see Lavelle once again pushed right with Rosie White back in the center. But that necessarily rearranges Adriana Leon, who just spent most of her last game on fire for Boston on that right side. Beard has switched her left before, and it really doesn’t seem prudent to leave out a player who’s in form like Leon at the moment, but moving her around like that could negate some of her danger.

Defensively, it’s not just Lynn Williams that Boston will have to close down. Williams partners up with Jess McDonald in very effective ways; either one of them is good for the cross, while the other can finish in the middle, and they’re both fast enough to get in behind in an eye blink. That’s going to require some really sharp coordination from Abby Smith and her defense.

The good news is, NC’s defense has holes. Without Hinkle, they can go into a back three, but that leaves them open for an attack by slipping someone into space - that can be King or Lavelle or Leon or White. Boston has a lot of options there, which is especially encouraging after a couple of seasons of very limited midfield options.

So yes, this game should be a little bit nerve-making, but it’s not a foregone conclusion that NC will win, as they have in the past. Boston should absolutely be wary of the Courage, but with their last two games bolstering their confidence, shouldn’t be going into this with an excessive underdog mindset. They are the underdog here, but not like they were in 2016. 2016 was a mastiff sitting on a lap dog. 2017 is more of an experienced German shepherd versus an Australian shepherd in the middle of its training.

Is thinking of dogs a way to avoid the stress of contemplating facing NC again? Probably. Boston vs NC kicks off at 6 PM ET on Sunday, May 7. The game will stream live on go90, which is now available on desktop as well as mobile.