North Carolina Courage coach Paul Riley didn’t have to think too long or hard about who would replace defender Abby Erceg in Sunday’s game against the Chicago Red Stars.
After Erceg got smacked with a one-game suspension for receiving a red card in the team’s loss to Orlando May 14, Riley asked Jessica McDonald to fill the position. After all, McDonald is tall, skillful, strong and fast—all attributes that would go a long way to helping shut down the Red Stars’ attacking prowess.
But McDonald, 29, is also the National Women Soccer League’s (NWSL) all-time leading goal-scorer, with 33 spread over her five years with five different teams. This season, she’s leading the Courage in scoring, too, tied with Lynn Williams and Brazilian midfielder Debinha, all who have scored two goals each so far this year. Taking McDonald out of the forward line could be a risk.
The best in the business want to work with your club! pic.twitter.com/jWIesL2Cdg
— ProPerformance (@ProPerformGurus) May 17, 2017
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But Riley also knew McDonald would make the move. Anything to help the team.
“I would play any one of the 11 positions if it puts me on the field,” McDonald, who grew up in Glendale, Ariz., told Excelle Sports. “I’ll learn to play goalkeeper if I have to.”
That’s why McDonald started at right back against Chicago Sunday, one in a three-back formation Sunday with Abby Dahlkemper in middle and Yuri Kawamura on left.
But things didn’t quite work out the way Riley hoped. The Courage lost 3-1.
After nearly a half-hour of anemic attacks from both teams in front of the 4,786 fans who packed Sahlen’s Stadium in Cary, N.C., Courage goalkeeper Sabrina D’Angelo fouled Red Star forward Christen Press at the right side on the penalty area. Press converted the penalty kick in the 30th minute. Seven minutes later, Press set up teammate Sofia Huerta for Chicago’s second goal, with Red Stars midfielder Vanessa DiBernardo making it 3-0 in the 45th minute.
While the strategy didn’t work, Riley says he would still play McDonald in a three-back if he had to do it all over again.
“Jess has the ability to play there, and she had played in the back some during pre-season, so it wasn’t anything new to her,” Riley told Excelle Sports.
Anson Dorrance, head coach of University of North Carolina women’s team who coached McDonald for two seasons (2008 and 2009) at UNC after she transferred from Phoenix College, says McDonald is not only versatile enough to handle the right-back position, but that she also has the right attitude to do what is needed.
“Anytime you can take the league’s all-time leading scorer and put her in the back, it’s obviously a credit to her versatility,” Dorrance told Excelle Sports. “She can play anywhere. Her ego doesn’t get in the way. She’s all about the team.”
Having a team-first attitude, however, doesn’t diminish the task of having to help shut down a world-class forward like Press, who scored eight goals and as assist when the USWNT won the 2015 World Cup.
“Oh, it’s a field day,” joked McDonald. “Who wouldn’t want to chase Christen Press around the field?”
— Jessica McDonald (@Jess_Mac14) May 21, 2017
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By most expert accounts at Sunday’s game, McDonald certainly held her own at right back. Riley says Chicago’s first-half dominance had little to do with North Carolina’s back line.
“We struggled in the first half in every way,” Riley said. “I don’t think we ever got going in midfield, and [the Red Stars] were very good in midfield. Chicago is a good team and they were very good today.”
Riley adds that by putting Debinha, normally a midfielder, in McDonald’s place at forward, the Courage lineup was weakened in both the midfield and at the forward line.
“In Brazil, Debinha is a forward, but she’s not a forward in this league because forwards here have to have a physical presence,” Riley said of the 5-foot-2 international. “So, in a way, we were missing Debinha and Jess today.”
After the game, all McDonald wasn’t ready to evaluate her defensive performance.
“I am my own worst critic,” she said. “I’m sure I can tell you a thousand things I did wrong out there. I want to watch the film first.”
At halftime and down 3-0, Riley returned McDonald to the front line. Lynn Williams, McDonald’s usual running mate up front, scored in the 55th minute to cut the lead to 2-1, as the Courage looked ready to mount a comeback. But Red Star goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher was able to preserve the two-goal cushion, with four saves, one of which came in the 58th minute when she dove to push away Debinha’s shot from 18 yards, and stopping every cross the Courage launched her way.
The loss was North Carolina’s second straight after starting the season 4-0. The Courage still hold first place in the league, but Sky Blue FC, who visits Cary on Wednesday, is just two points back.
“I think everyone got a little carried away with our fast start,” said Riley. “We are not super improved from last year [when the team was the Western Flash New York]—and we only won nine games last year. The league is very tight this year, and we just have to get ready for Sky Blue.”
With Erceg back for Wednesday’s game, McDonald will move back to the front line, where she will do whatever she can to get the Courage winning again.
“When she was at UNC, she gave 110 percent in every game and every practice,” Dorrance said of McDonald. “No one worked as hard as she did. But what everyone loves about her is she is always team first.”