*Photo from Jody Lim, The Asian Reporter.
While they may have been underdogs on paper, and in the official record, playing at home for the NWSL Championships when you’re the Portland Thorns is hardly an underdog position.
However, they were matched against a very formidable, and very familiar, foe in the North Carolina Courage. Ignore the rivalry between these two teams for a minute, and focus on the season the Courage had: 18W-1L-6D. One loss. They won the league by 15 points. Insane.
I already wrote about this season’s Thorns being a different team from last year, despite replicating the same success of reaching the Championship. Much of that can be attributed to their on and off field leadership, as well as the personalities on the team.
Approximately 200 Rose City Riveters made their way to Orlando for last year’s tilt. This time North Carolina walked into a packed stadium, where 95% of the fans were cheering on their opponents.
However, they were no strangers to the field, having played their semi-final match at Providence Park due to Hurricane Florence making a mess of the Carolinas. ………………………………..
The sun reemerged for the start of this one and both teams came out of the gate looking to impose their own style and pace. The first real chance came in the 8th minute with a Courage free-kick to Adrianna Franch’s left. Luckily it went out without a threat.
The Courage came back about a minute later but Emily Menges and Ellie Carpenter were well positioned to deflect any real opportunities. Portland came storming back, but Lindsey Horan’s cross to Ana-Marie Crnogorcevich was mistimed and an easy smother for the Keeper.
Unfortunately the Courage were a bit luckier on their end. Lynn Williams took the ball down the left and got a decent shot on net. The defender did well to deflect the chance, but the result wasn’t so great.
— NWSL (@NWSL) September 22, 2018
A scant three minutes later the Courage almost netted another, but the header attempt went wide. Portland gained composure and had two corner kicks, but didn’t capitalize, and Captain, Christine Sinclair, had some magic in on a run up, but her pass to Caitlin Foord was just wide of the mark.
Franch was relied on in the 32nd minute when Courage Midfielder, Denise O’Sullivan, had a good look on net. I wouldn’t say Portland looked disorganized, but on the lead up to this one Meghan Klingenberg and Menges bumped into each other, which occurred several other times on the pitch up to this point (not just those two).
After some midfield back-and-forth, the Courage had another solid chance, but again the header was not on target. It started to become increasingly clearer that Portland needed to capitalize on some chances, as the Courage were getting closer to extending their lead.
Unfortunately that did not take long. The Courage caught the Portland defenders not paying attention, and slipped one in behind leading to a rather easy header. Not looking great at this point.
— NWSL (@NWSL) September 22, 2018
Not that it was going great, but the Courage dominated at this point, having another chance miss the target. O’Sullivan picked up the first Yellow Card of the day, stifling a Portland breakout at midfield.
A big scare came in the 44th minute when Franch collided with a Courage player and came up limping on her right knee. She hobbled back to position, and eventually the referee blew the whistle so she could get some attention. She would stay in the match.
The first half could have easily been much worse for Portland. They were outshot 15-5, but had better passing accuracy and more possession. Those missed chances early in the first 45 minutes stung extra hard at halftime.
The second half started much like the first with both teams spending time between the boxes, feeling one another out. Klingenberg had a nice chance at a cross, but it ended up going directly to the Keeper.
A Portland corner-kick at the 52nd minute was punched away by the Courage Keeper, and another in the 53rd minute was also cleared away. The latter one had more promise, but again Portland had trouble finding their own on set pieces.
They kept the pressure up however, with a blistering Tobin Heath low shot resulting in a juicy rebound, but no Portland player in sight to slam it home. I thought it summed up the match well to this point.
The Courage weren’t just protecting their lead. They had two chances with headers at the 58th and 61st minutes that went over the crossbar and wide, respectively. A 64th minute corner-kick was the real dagger though.
— NWSL (@NWSL) September 22, 2018
Shortly after this Portland Head Coach Mark Parsons pulled Crnogorcevich in favor of Andressinha in the 67th minute. The new addition brought some energy to the pitch, and Portland had two corner-kicks (70th and 72nd minute).
Foord would have a blast from distance that looked to have promise, but it was all for naught. Other than a couple chances, which resulted in no shots on goal (not shocking) this one was in the bag.
WHAT WENT RIGHT
Honestly, not too much, which isn’t shocking. I thought Portland looked good passing between the boxes, but when push came to shove they couldn’t capitalize on it. There were a few times, under pressure, when the defense looked great moving the ball around to get out of trouble.
WHAT WENT WRONG
Is the last 10% a thing? I felt like Portland was there most of the match up until the last 10% of it. Whether it was a cross, a corner-kick, or even a pass, it would just miss the intended recipient. This made for very frustrating sequences.
They also seemed to constantly be waiting for the ball to come to them. If a pass was losing speed, or a deflected shot was in their vicinity they seemed to wait for it to get to them or for it to land perfectly.
The loss doesn’t change this awesome fact. Hopefully someone will look back on this one day when the new record is 60,000.
— Portland Thorns FC (@ThornsFC) September 22, 2018
We aren’t going to catch them so:
Congrats NC on earning the star you’ve been fighting for for years.
— Jeremy Varo-Haub (@varohaub) September 22, 2018
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE
The 2019 season of course, but this portion was inevitable from the start. There’s a few big questions for next year. Hayley Raso is still very injured with her fractured vertebrae, so there will be questions if she will be ready by season’s start.
There is also a World Cup to contend with next season (June 7 – July 7) in France. It will be interesting to see how it will impact the season, considering how many international and US Women’s National Team players are on the Thorns.
I also want to add, the Courage earned this win in every way shape and form. They were the better team not only from the start of this game, from the start of the season. They were the 1984 Detroit Tigers: started in first place and never left it.
Repeating as champion in any sport is very difficult and takes a toll. Both these teams were playing in back-to-back championships, both had long roads to get here. This season the Courage were a dominant force, and my hats off to them.
Personally, I greatly enjoyed this season, and covering this team. From the staff at Providence Park (Katie Simmons, Mike Donovan) to the people I’ve met in the press box. Also a HUGE thank you to Jody Lim for the photos, advice, and general direction so I don’t look like too much of an idiot!
I’m not sure if I will be back for next season. These games are not a quick or easy thing. Between pregame prep and postgame press conference and player questions, plus finishing my write-up, I am looking at 4-7 hours for each one. It’s a lot, and this team has earned the respect of me putting in a full effort to cover them. Time will tell.
I can say definitively, that this ticked off a bucket list box for me. There was a good chunk of time when I wanted to be a sports writer. The Thorns allowed me to live that, if only part time, but I got a Media Pass with my picture on it, got to sit in the press box, and got to ask questions in a postgame press conference. I think my 12-year-old self would be pretty impressed.