NC Courage hold on to top spot in NWSL

BY AP • July 17, 2017

Even though Jess McDonald missed a few games with a hamstring injury, it didn't stop her from being the North Carolina Courage's biggest cheerleader.

The veteran forward said the best thing she can contribute if she's not on the field is her support.

''I want to just continue to bring positive vibes on to this squad, and just sort of keep the positive energy going inside the locker room and outside the locker room as well,'' she said.

There's lots of positive energy around the Courage right now despite a loss over the weekend on the road against the Portland Thorns. With 10 games left in the regular season, the Courage (9-5-0) sit atop the league standings with 27 points. Rounding out the top four are the Chicago Red Stars (7-3-4), Sky Blue (7-6-2) and the Portland Thorns (6-4-4). The top four teams in the 10-team league go to the playoffs.

North Carolina also has the league's best record at home (6-2-0).

McDonald sat out three games this season because of a left hamstring injury. She's been working her way back in three games since, coming in as a sub. And while she may not yet have her speed back, the 29-year-old's savvy and toughness was still apparent against the Thorns.

''I'm just going with the flow right now, just trying to work hard day in and day out, trying to improve my game going off an injury,'' she said. ''Obviously I'm not 100 percent quite yet and not ready to play the full 90 minutes. But when the time does come, hopefully I'll be at my peak and I will be at my best.''

The Courage are the defending NWSL champions, winning the title game last season as the Western New York Flash. The team moved in the offseason to Cary, North Carolina.

North Carolina is loaded with talent - young U.S. national team hopefuls Lynn Williams, Sam Mewis and Jaelene Hinkle, who are expected to find out this week if they'll be called up to the U.S. women's national team for the upcoming Tournament of Nations. McDonald, Abby Erceg and McCall Zerboni are steady veterans for the Courage under head coach Paul Riley.

Rookie Ashley Hatch, who played at BYU, leads the team with four goals.

A look at some other story lines in the NWSL:

KERR ON FIRE: McDonald set the NWSL record for career goals scored when she had her 33rd goal in a May match against the Breakers, but she's since been surpassed by Sky Blue forward Samantha Kerr, who scored her 36th NWSL goal in a 2-2 draw with Chicago last weekend.

Kerr, who is Australian and is on her country's national team roster for the upcoming Tournament of Nations, leads the league with 10 goals this season. The 23-year-old was the league's Player of the Month for May and June.

''The most exciting thing about Sam is we truly believe there is still more to come from her. She is very young, and she is still very early in her development. These are the moments where she is proving to be one of the best players in the world,'' Sky Blue coach Christy Holly recently told reporters.

MARTA'S IMPACT: There was a great deal of fanfare earlier this year when the Orlando Pride signed Brazilian star Marta, and so far she's fit in well. She ranks third in the league with eight goals in her first NWSL season, and she's tied for second with four assists. With Alex Morgan nursing a hamstring injury, Pride coach Tom Sermanni played Marta behind Morgan over the weekend.

RAPINOE'S RETURN: Megan Rapinoe is having a resurgent season after a turbulent 2016. Rapinoe has nine goals for the Seattle Reign, who are sitting just outside the playoff picture in the fifth spot.

Last season was up and down for Rapinoe , who returned from knee surgery and played a limited role for the United States in the Rio Olympics. She also stirred some controversy by kneeling during the national anthem in solidarity with quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

ATTENDANCE: The NWSL is averaging 5,168 fans per match this season, down from a 5,558 average in 2016. In its fifth season, the league won't be boosted this year by an Olympics or a Women's World Cup, so the small drop isn't entirely unexpected. The Thorns lead the league in attendance with an average of 16,450 fans a game.

FOREIGN INFUSION? There's no news on the league's possible expansion - mostly because Commissioner Jeff Plush stepped down in March and his replacement has not been named. Before Plush stepped down, he suggested the Los Angeles area would be a priority for an expansion club.

In May, FC Barcelona announced it plans to field a women's soccer team in the United States. The Spanish team says its board has approved a ''development plan'' for an NWSL team, possibly as soon as the 2018 season. Details aren't known yet.

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