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NC Courage vs. Portland Thorns: NWSL Championship preview

The Courage look to win the double

After a dominant season where the NC Courage never sat below second place, the team has reached the NWSL Championship in their first season in Cary. The Courage returned to the championship after a 90th minute goal to beat the Chicago Red Stars for the first time in 2017. The match was a nervy, defensive affair between teams looking to minimize mistakes and give nothing away. In the end, the pressure and crosses from the Courage led to a win and a second consecutive trip to the NWSL Championship.

As for the Portland Thorns, a trip to the title match was booked in a dominant performance against an outmatched Orlando Pride team. Portland won the match 4-1, exploiting a poor defensive plan by the Pride. The Thorns defense, on the other hand, held firm allowing just one goal from a sequence started by a corner kick. In the end, Orlando could not keep up with Portland as the Rose City team will look to get revenge for their first round exit against the former WNY Flash this weekend.

What to watch for

This match will truly pit both of the best teams in NWSL this year against each other. Little separates these teams, there was only two points between them in the table, and North Carolina scored just one more goal than Portland while allowing two fewer scored than their opponents. The teams even split their meetings this year with each side winning at home in the regular season.

What’s more, the teams are both evenly matched. In attack Jess McDonald of North Carolina is matched by Christine Sinclair in terms of veteran presence and goal scoring ability. Lynn Williams, Ashley Hatch, and Denise O’Sullivan are all potent going forward as well with Portland featuring goal scoring threats like Tobin Heath, Amandine Henry, and Hayley Raso. Lindsey Horan plays the Sam Mewis role in central midfield. Like Taylor Smith and Jaelene Hinkle, Portland has attack minded wing backs like Megan Klingenberg and Ashleigh Skyes. The main difference might be the formations the teams like to deploy with Portland playing a three woman backline of Emily Sonnett, Emily Menges, and Katherine Reynolds, which is contrasted to the center back duo of Abby Erceg and Abby Dahlkemper from the Courage.

In all likelihood, this game seems destined to result in the same kind of defensive struggle that the Courage won in order to reach the final. Their evolution from hair-on-fire attacking side to stout defensive juggernaut this year has been surprising, but the results speak for themselves. The main concern for North Carolina will be the formation the team lines up in. Assuming that Portland sticks with its three center back formation, North Carolina manager Paul Riley could change things up a bit. He’s been agnostic when it comes to formation all year and seems inclined to change his tactics when need be.

As in the last match, depth could be a factor. When Courage midfielder Debinha went down early against the Red Stars, Kristen Hamilton stepped in and the team came away with a victory. Jess McDonald coming off of the bench is a game changer in any game, but in a match with potential extra-time, her presence late in the game could be crucial. The Thorns also have bench depth with Iceland international Dagny Brynjarsdottir able to provide a set-piece threat and Allie Long ready to step in for a late attacking option.

Lineup prediction

I think the tried and true 4-4-2 diamond is coach Riley’s chosen formation going into this match and will line up like this:

Goalkeeper: Katelyn Rowland; Defenders: Jaelene Hinkle, Abby Dahlkemper, Abby Erceg, Taylor Smith; Midfielders: Sam Mewis, Denise O’Sullivan, McCall Zerboni, Kristen Hamilton; Forwards: Lynn Willimas, Ashley Hatch

How to watch

When: Saturday October 14, 2017

Kickoff: 4:30PM

TV: Lifetime Network

Where: Orlando City Stadium