Andy Mead/

Team chemistry the X factor for the North Carolina Courage

In mid-June, North Carolina Courage midfielder Sam Mewis got off an airplane in Raleigh, the last leg of her trip home for Norway.

She had just spent a week playing intense soccer at the highest level – including all 180 minutes of the U.S. national team’s pair of 1-0 wins against Sweden and Norway on June 8 and June 11.  During her week with the national team, she spent roughly 24 hours on airplanes and trains and buses, and lived for a week out of her suitcase. Now, it’s Tuesday and next on her schedule is a Saturday home game with her North Carolina Courage against the Boston Breakers.

So what was the first thing she did when her plane landed in Raleigh? She texted Paul Riley, the Courage coach, to tell him she was on her way to training.

This is part of the reason why the Courage won the 2017 NWSL Shield as the regular season champions and will host the Chicago Red Stars in the playoff semifinals this Sunday.

“She wanted to be with the team,” says Riley. “She doesn’t want to let anyone down. There’s a great culture in our locker room.”

But Mewis is just one element that adds to the positive team chemistry the Courage are enjoying. Evidence of teammates genuinely enjoying and supporting each other can be spotted whenever the team is together.

You can tell a great deal about a team by watching goal celebrations. Sometimes there’s the polite little golf clap, a quick hug, and then with the requisite smile quickly gone from their faces, the players go their separate ways.

That’s not the case with the Courage. Consider the reaction to a goal on June 3 by Ashley Hatch. Hatch a rookie out of BYU, got her first start of the season that day. In the 67th minute, she scored her first professional goal. Hatch’s goal was greeted with a gold medal-worthy eruption from her teammates.

“Ash is great,” said Mewis. “When she scored, I was so excited for her. We are all rooting for her because she works so hard and she’s such a great girl.”

The rest of the Courage players on the field soon mobbed Hatch, and then Hatch bolted to the Courage bench, where Kristen Hamilton was among the reserve players who appeared as excited as Hatch.

“She’s one of us,” said Hamilton referring to the Courage reserve. “She’s been on the bench with us throughout the season, and it was just really special to see her celebrate with us.”

Hatch, in fact, made a special point to go to the bench after her goal.

“I have been on the bench for most games, and we’ve been cheering everyone on,” she says. “Every time one of us goes into a game, we say, ‘If you score you’d better come over here.’ I had to make sure I did that.”

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Two weeks later, Hamilton got her first start as a professional. She scored the game-winner against Boston, and the bench eruption was repeated.

“This team is very uplifting and supportive,” says Hamilton. “I never felt like I was coming into a lineup where I didn’t belong.”

Her performance against Boston earned Hamilton the Player of the Game honors and an on-camera interview which was broadcast on the Sahlen’s Stadium scoreboard. Some of her comments, however, were drowned out by her teammates who assembled off-camera nearby to scream “Hammy!” as Hamilton did her best to keep a straight, professional face.

A New Element in the Mix

Adding a new player to the roster with eight games left in the season is a potential chemistry-buster. Players already on the team could rightly worry about their playing time, their personal situation, and their place on the team.

But when Denise O’Sullivan, a 23-year-old Irish international, was acquired on July 28 from the Houston Dash, none of that happened.

“It’s been amazing,” says O’Sullivan. “The team has been so welcoming since the first day I came in. They couldn’t have made me feel any more at home. The team chemistry is amazing.  Everyone is really close to each other and gets along really well. That goes a long way.”

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Over the course of the season, Courage players have discovered something very important – they like hanging out together. Part of the reason is they all live in the same apartment complex.

“I think that helps,” says O’Sullivan. “We hang out with each other and do activities together. Everyone gets together and cooks and things like that. Once you get along with your teammates, you’re going to do well on the field.”

Mewis has found the living arrangement has helped her stay fresh during a hectic season of club and country commitments.

“We have such a focused group that it is easy to do extra stretching, or just stay home and put our legs up and not be out and about all the time,” she says. “It’s a group thing, and it keeps us really fresh and ready each week.”

The Chemist Behind the Winning Formula

Paul Riley is the Chair of Development and Cell Biology in the Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics at Oxford University.

No wait, that’s a different Paul Riley. But even on the sideline in his suit and tie, the 53-year-old native of Liverpool, England, could be mistaken for a scientist. Riley has been coaching for 31 years, and he’s clearly paid attention to his chemistry lessons.

His players enjoy being on his team, and more than a few use the word “lucky” when talking about playing for him. But Riley has no complicated formula for creating positive team chemistry.

“Whether there are 20 players on the roster or four on the roster, we treat everyone the same,” he says. “We value every player and their role in the team is crucial to the group effort. We don’t have a player with 15 goals like (Sky Blue’s) Sam Kerr, we rely on everyone.

“We talk a lot about our core values – attitude, effort, work, the will to win,” he continues. “The culture of the club is really good. A chameleon changes colors, but the DNA is always the same. The DNA of our group is always the same. They never stop working.”

Leading the Way to Victory

Of course, to have good chemistry, you have to have the right leaders. With Mewis and Abby Erceg, the Courage have leaders with infectious, positive attitudes. But McCall Zerboni, a veteran of seven professional teams in 10 seasons, might be the key piece to the whole thing.

“Everybody adds to [the chemistry], but I think McCall is a huge part of it,” Riley says. “She just wants to get better, and if you have a player at 30 years of age who wants to get better, that’s a brilliant thing for the younger players to see.”

Mewis, who plays alongside Zerboni in the Courage midfield, agrees.

“I feel like the more I get to play with her, the more I’m like, ‘You are just the most amazing person I’ve ever met,’” says Mewis. “I know I will look to the years that I played with her as very important. For me to be able to watch what she does and how she does it, to watch her leadership, to watch how she takes care of her body … it’s just so valuable for me.”

The Courage, while certainly one of the most talented teams in the league, know that talent can only take a team so far. In this case, the whole really is greater than the sum of its parts.

“I haven’t been a part of a team that is this cohesive in a very, very long time,” says Hamilton.  “I think it’s something special. And Paul is a phenomenal coach, and I think I’ve grown and learned a ton from him, so I just want to stay in this environment.”

And all of that is why Sam Mewis couldn’t wait to get off the plane and get to training.

“I can’t say it enough — this team is such a special group,” Mewis says. “I love playing for this team.”

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