By Tim Nash
On Aug 19, for the 10th time in 18 games this season, the North Carolina Courage looked at the scoreboard at the end of the game and see a zero under their opponent’s name.
Ten shutouts have helped the Courage, who have allowed a league-low 14 goals through 18 games, secure a place atop the NWSL standings for most of the 2017 season.
The stingy defense can be credited to a number of different factors – a high-pressing defense starting athletic forwards, like Ashley Hatch, Jessica McDonald and Lynn Williams, an organized and aggressive midfield led by Sam Mewis and McCall Zerboni, and backline that features a veteran from New Zealand, Abby Erceg, and three players who have caught the eye of U.S. National team coach Jill Ellis – Jaelene Hinkle, Taylor Smith and Abby Dahlkemper. In goal, both Katelyn Rowland and Sabrina D’Angelo have shared the duties.
During a stretch prior to the 2019 World Cup when Ellis is expanding her player pool and experimenting with formations, systems and different combinations, Dahlkemper has been a rare consistency in the USA lineup. She made her international debut on Oct. 19, 2016 in a 4-0 win over Switzerland in Utah and has slowly made her way into one of the backs in consideration for a starting spot on the backline.
Of the three Courage defenders seeing time in the U.S. lineup, Dahlkemper has been the most consistent starter. At 24, she has seven caps with the full national team, including all of the August’s Tournament of Nations Cup matches. For the Courage, she’s played every minute of the team’s first 18 games, helping solidify the league’s best defense.
“As a back line, we have found our groove,” said Dahlkemper of her Courage teammates. “We seem to be all on the same page coming into the stretch before the playoffs. Our defense starts with our forwards with the high-press style we have. Everyone from front to back takes pride in the work we do.”
Dahlkemper’s rise to one of the elite American center backs was slow and steady through the youth national team ranks and a standout career at UCLA, but those who have seen her closely point to the progress between last season and this season in the NWSL as the reason for her emergence as one of the top center backs in the league and a national team contender.
“She’s matured a lot,” said Courage coach Paul Riley. “Last year she wasn’t fit enough and she wasn’t physical enough. Those were two things she had to bring this year. She came in fitter than last year. She wanted to make the national team. Now she’s been called in a few times, and in my mind she’s a regular.
“She’s got a great mind, great positioning and great distribution. If you want to play center back, you have to be able to defend. That was a negative for me last year. Sometimes she would defend, sometimes she wouldn’t. This year, she’s been consistent and that’s why we get clean sheets.”
A four-time National Soccer Coaches Association of America All-American at UCLA, Dahlkemper found there still much to learn to be a pro soccer player.
“Being a professional and learning how to be a professional has definitely brought me out of my comfort zone,” she explains. “It’s challenged me, but that’s how you improve. I’m thankful for being able to feel uncomfortable. Getting out of your comfort zone is really important as a player. My comfort zone was staying to the passes that I knew I can do Now, I’m trying to connect passes I normally don’t make. Seeing different angles, being physical, being a beast in the back. I’ve really concentrated on my physicality and trying to improve that part.”
The opportunity to play alongside two veteran center backs has aided Dahlkemper’s emergence with at the international level. With the national team, she has been paired with Becky Sauerbrunn, the USA captain who has 129 international appearances behind her. With the Courage, Dahlkemper teams with Erceg, a 27-year-old veteran from New Zealand.
“Each one has a certain style and things that they are good at,” says Dahlkemper. “They are both World Class players and I’m thankful to be able to play with them. Becky reads the game like no one else I’ve seen. She is consistent and makes big-time tackles. She’s the best defender in the world for me, and it’s really an honor to be able to play next to her. Every time I step on the field in practice and in games, and even off the field, I learn a lot from her.
“Abby [Erceg] is experienced, steady in the back, makes big-time tackles, and I think as a center back you have to make tackles and start the attack for your team. She does all that.
Erceg sees a bright future on the international level for her Courage teammate.
“The national team is very good and they have big personalities like Sauerbrunn and Julie Ertz. To compete with those players is really difficult. You have to be extremely good. I think the fact that she’s gotten couple looks with the national team is extremely positive for her, especially at such a young age. I think her time will come.”
Dahlkemper is not overly concerned with how quickly she becomes a national team regular. Right now, she’s trying to do whatever she can to become a better soccer player.
“I’m 24 years old, and I still have a lot to improve,” she says. “I learn so much in that [national team] environment. I’m just trying to be a sponge and soak everything in. Being surrounded by the best players in the world, never gets old and representing the US will never get old for me. I’m humbled and honored to be able to play for my country. I’m never done improving or getting better.”