The North Carolina Courage’s dominance of the National Women’s Soccer League this season has almost become boring.
The Courage clinched the regular-season title more than a month ago. It feels settled and done with: The Courage is the best club women’s soccer team in the world.
Even Hurricane Florence, which forced the team to reschedule its home semifinal game to a midweek game in Portland, can’t stop North Carolina from being the favorites to take home the playoff title.
The Courage reset most of the league record books this season: most wins, most points, most goals scored and the fewest points allowed.
No soccer team in the history of U.S. women’s pro soccer has earned more points per game.
If the Courage win the playoff title, it would make it the first NWSL team to win both the Supporters’ Shield and the championship in the same year — perhaps the only record the team doesn’t yet hold.
North Carolina’s defense has been excellent, so good that stats company Opta named the Courage back four as the four defenders in its Best XI all-star team for the season.
As good as the defense has been, though, the offense has been even better. Forwards Lynn Williams and Jessica McDonald and wingers Crystal Dunn and Debinha combined for 37 goals, more than most NWSL teams scored this year.
The only thing that can slow down the Courage is a late-season injury to midfielder McCall Zerboni, whose commanding presence in central midfield both protected the defense and freed the offense. She will miss the playoffs with a fractured elbow.
Its main competitor is Portland, which defeated the Courage in last season’s playoff finals.
Since the beginning of July, Portland is 7-1-1. All-Star winger Tobin Heath is back to her old self, and she and her U.S. women’s national team teammate Lindsay Horan are mainstays on the score sheet. Heath has scored in four consecutive games. Horan has seven goals in eight games.
Portland also has the advantage of the entire playoff schedule being held in Portland, with the championship game played there regardless of the outcome of the semifinals.
Last season, the Thorns pulled off a 1-0 victory in the championship game over North Carolina, despite the Courage winning the regular season. Portland is hoping for a repeat.
Two other teams in the playoff picture are Seattle, which plays at Portland (2 p.m. Saturday, Lifetime) and Chicago, which takes on North Carolina (8 p.m. Tuesday, ESPNNews).
Chicago has Sam Kerr, the league’s leading scorer, and so is always dangerous. The Red Stars are on a bit of a tear, like Portland, with only two losses in three months,
Seattle has Megan Rapinoe, who is returning from injury. Her absence, along with the absence of Reign star Allie Long, was part of the reason that the Reign lost 3-1 to Portland last week, a result that will be difficult for the Thorns to repeat.
Right now, though, it looks more like everyone else against North Carolina.
And the way the Courage has played this year, even with the playoffs being played entirely in Portland, it’ll be tough for anyone to top them.
• On the one hand, the U.S. men’s national team’s 1-0 victory against Mexico was a meaningless result in a boring exhibition game. On the other hand, all anyone could talk about for the next day was U.S. center back Matt Miazga, who is 6-4, mocking teenage standout Diego Lainez, who is 5-5, for being short. It’s that sort of grouchy behavior that has defined the USA-Mexico rivalry for decades, and so in a way it was a welcome return to normalcy.
• La Liga has asked Spain’s soccer federation for permission to move a January game between Girona and Barcelona to Miami. The league is planning to pay for plane tickets for 1,500 Girona fans as a reward for giving up a home game. If permission is granted, La Liga still needs the go-ahead from at least three other governing bodies before the match can go ahead.
• Diego Maradona is, amazingly, still getting work in the soccer world. Second-division Mexican side Dorados de Sinaloa hired him as coach this week. The soccer legend was last a coach at a second-division side in the United Arab Emirates, where he left earlier this year after failing to earn promotion — the latest stop on a struggling coaching career.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
Premier League: Manchester United at Watford, 11:30 a.m. Saturday, Ch. 11. Break up the Hornets! Watford, picked by many to be relegated, has won its first four games of 2018, including a 2-1 home victory against Tottenham the last time out. Can Watford humble Manchester United, where manager Jose Mourinho seems to be one bad loss from being fired?