Paul Riley is at it again.
The veteran manager is in the playoffs for the fourth straight year, and the seventh of his eight as a coach of American pro women’s soccer teams across two leagues.
This season, Riley’s North Carolina Courage racked up the NWSL’s best regular season record for the third straight year. He has guided teams to the last three title games, winning with the Courage last year and the Western New York Flash in 2016.
If the Courage beat Tacoma, Wash.-based Reign FC in Sunday’s semifinal (3:30 p.m., ESPN2), Riley will reach his sixth career final, including 2010 and 2011 with the Philadelphia Independence.
And for the first time, he would get to play in a final on his team’s home field: Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C., a suburb of Raleigh. The NWSL pre-selects a “neutral” venue, like the NFL does, though it was clear from the start that the Courage might get to play at home.
Reaching the playoffs has never gotten old for Riley. This year has brought a special set of circumstances, as it’s the first World Cup year in which he’s done it since 2011 -- the Independence’s last season of existence. That one empty year on his resume was 2015, his second and last with the Portland Thorns.
“I think you go into the season with a plan: [a] postseason, a preseason plan, and a [regular] seasonal plan, and obviously we had the World Cup in the middle of it all," Riley said on a conference call Tuesday with reporters. “I thought we planned really heavy for it in the offseason, and the expectation was that it was going to be tricky no matter what plan we had. And as I’ve said many times, you know, plans usually get thrown out, but we kept to the plan pretty well.”
To say the least. Eight Courage players were gone during the World Cup: Abby Dahlkemper, Crystal Dunn, Jessica McDonald, Samantha Mewis (all with the U.S.), Debinha (Brazil), Stephanie Labbé (Canada), Abby Erceg (New Zealand) and Heather O’Reilly (Fox’s broadcast crew). All but O’Reilly are starters, and O’Reilly needs no introduction.
Yet Riley worked his magic again. The Courage lost just one of their eight games while the American contingent was gone, and it was the first of them. One of the players who stepped up, Kristen Hamilton, played so well that she earned her first U.S. national team call-up as an injury replacement for the first games of the World Cup victory tour. She even earned her first cap.
“We got through pretty well, but it’s definitely anything but routine, to be perfectly honest with you,” Riley said. “When you look back and you think to yourself, ‘Well, who’s played really well?’ I think when you go through the lineup, just about everybody that’s been in the lineup has had a good season."
Sunday’s game will have some extra significance for the Courage because they didn’t get a home playoff game last year, despite their record. Hurricane Florence hit the Carolinas right when the contest was supposed to be played, forcing the NWSL to move it to Portland, the site of the final.
The Courage weren’t happy, and still haven’t forgotten about it.
“I think this is the cherry on the top at the end of [this season], to play a semifinal game at home in front of your own family,” Riley said.
Riley also hasn’t forgotten about all those other playoff successes. Mewis, McDonald and Dahlkemper are among many Courage players who’ve been with him since the Western New York days.
“We’ve had a lot of good experience the last four years,” Riley said. "We welcome the pressure. I think it’s an important part of becoming a really top player. Four years ago, it might have been a little bit different for these players, but now that they’ve matured, I think the more pressure that can come on them, the better - at least they’re more equipped to deal with it and and get through it.