The NC Courage went into Orlando City Stadium looking for their second straight NWSL Championship title. Alas, the double was not in the works for the team this year as they fell 1-0 to the Portland Thorns. Despite suffering several injuries, and their players perhaps not being protected by the referee at times, North Carolina still fought hard and had their chances.
The match started with each side testing the other’s backline but being dealt with easily overall. An early shoulder injury to defender Taylor Smith forced coach Paul Riley to make a change at the 12th minute by bringing in Makenzie Doniak. The change saw Doniak and Kristen Hamilton change positions on the field with Doniak taking the midfield role.
At the 14 minute mark, the game saw its first big chance seemingly out of nowhere. That’s when Adriana Franch booted a ball long out of her goal box. Sam Mewis gathered it at midfield, looked up and saw Franch out of her goal and had a try from halfway down the pitch. Her shot clanged off of the crossbar and Franch gathered it and the Courage missed out on a chance to take an early lead.
This would be the best chance of the game through 30 minutes as each team pressed their opponents effectively. In that time, neither team was able to establish possession as the pressure the defenses exerted stopped attacks from developing and shut down space in midfield. In the off chance that one of the attacking sides pushed into the final third, a defender was there to cut out the final ball.
In the 35th minute a North Carolina corner was cleared out of the Thorns box into the path of last week’s hero Denise O’Sullivan. The Courage midfielder took a strong strike on the ball but Franch knocked it down and smothered it. Set pieces had been a strength for the NC all year and they nearly paid off yet again.
If there was one area that Portland seemed to have an edge in, it was physicality. Tobin Heath was lucky not to have a yellow card when she fouled Kristen Hamilton in the 37th minute. Hamilton joined Smith on the bench when she was forced to come off following the foul from Heath and Jess McDonald came into the game. Heath finally earned her yellow in the 41st minute for persistent infringement. Just a minute later, Hayley Rasso cynically fouled McCall Zerboni on a breakaway without trying to play the ball and somehow avoided being booked herself.
Rasso earned her yellow just before the half on a clattering tackle in which she clattered into Doniak without trying to play the ball. The resulting set piece saw a flurry of chances for the Courage to get a solid shot on goal, but eventually the ball was cleared. After four minutes of added time, the teams would go into the locker rooms even at zero.
North Carolina would have a costly missed opportunity to open the half when a long ball played down the right flank was won by Lynn Williams who fired a shot that was blocked by Franch. Jess McDonald pounced on the loose ball in front of goal and gathered it with her back turned to the net, her balance failed her on the turn though and she missed the shot.
The Thorns would answer back with a chance of their own in the 50th minute when an Emily Sonnet set piece played in from midfield skipped through the Courage goal box without being touched until reaching Lindsey Horan. She took a shot that went through the outstretched arms of Katlyn Rowland to put the Thorns ahead 1-0. In an effort to put the game away, Portland went to the bench bringing Iceland international Dagny Brynjarsdottir in the for Ashleigh Sykes just before the hour mark.
North Carolina would search for an equalizer pushing forward against the Thorns. For their part, Portland seemed content to hold back the Courage attacks with 10 players behind the ball. It nearly came when Zerboni won a ball in the Thorns’ final third and played a ball into Williams in the 68th minute. The Courage striker fired in a shot from just outside the 18 yard box that rolled into the arms of the Thorns keeper.
As the game wound down, Portland again went to their bench taking Rasso, who was on a yellow card, out for Nadia Nadim with 20 minutes to go. North Carolina again saw a counter attack snuffed out by the Thorns when Denise O’Sullivan was fouled as she charged to the goal by Brynjarsdottir. After the yellow was issued to the Thorns midfielder, the NC free kick was played into Sam Mewis who was standing in the wall but the practice field play led to nothing.
North Carolina would continue to try to run the channels against the Thorns, but their efforts were lacking in the end. Jess McDonald won a ball just outside of the Portland goal box but Emily Menges recovered well and blocked her shot in a play that came with less than 10 minutes left in the match. In the 86th minute Stephanie Ochs came in for Denise O’Sullivan.
In the end, nothing worked. Not the long throw in, not hopeful crosses, not a clever chip by Abby Erceg. Confident with their lead and smothering the attacking efforts of North Carolina, Portland saw the game out to win the NWSL Championship. The game capped a wonderful season for North Carolina. The final result was perhaps a fitting result, a defensive struggle between the two teams that allowed the fewest goals all season. Still, North Carolina will look back and see opportunities missed, injuries that changed the game plan, and perhaps a bit of a slow response to the physical play from their opponents that ended up costing them the game.