The NC Courage debuted in 2018 looking for redemption against the Portland Thorns after losing the last match between the teams in the NWSL Championship. On a cold and rainy day in Cary each team had plenty of chances as it looked like the backlines were still shaking off of the rust from preseason. The Courage seemed to be the better side throughout the match, but only managed one goal for their efforts. In the end that would be enough as the earned their first win of the season.
North Carolina came out in a 4-4-2 diamond, at least according to the lineup graphic, with Crystal Dunn taking a role on the wing to begin the year and both Debinha and Denise O’Sullivan sharing the field.
The first fifteen minutes of the match featured Dunn picking passes three times to break through the Thorns backline. Lynn Williams nearly scored before the 10 minute mark on a play started with a deep midfield pass from Dunn to Jess McDonald who was sprinting down the right side of the pitch. The attacker played a cross to Williams, but her shot went wide. The physicality that characterized the last time the two teams met was another feature of the half with Portland getting two yellow cards in the half, with Lindsey Horan and Emily Sonnett each getting booked.
As the half wore on, the Thorns surprisingly used their 3-5-2 in more of an attacking fashion rather than try to clog the midfield or drop the wingbacks into more of a five defender look. The result was a back and forth game, though the Courage defense managed to keep Portland from creating effective chances in the half. For their part, one of the best opportunities for the Courage came in the 37th minute when a poorly cleared corner was re-cycled into the Thorns penalty area, however a McDonald header was blocked by the away team.
The half ended scoreless, but it seemed like the Courage were poised for a goal as the first 45 closed with NC out shooting Portland 9-2.
As the second began, it seemed like each team was still feeling the effects of pre-season as neither had much success at creating chances. The Courage had a few troubling sequences where they were a bit careless with the ball while trying to build from the back. Portland couldn’t do much with the turnovers in the back from North Carolina, luckily for keeper Sabrina D’Angelo.
In search of a late goal coach Paul Riley went to his bench in the 67th minute taking Jess McDonald off for Darian Jenkins, a forward who spent last season injured. However, in the 70th minute it was a player on the field who would put North Carolina ahead. The play leading to the goal started with Denise O’Sullivan driving toward the Throns net and laying off a pass near the top of 18 yard box which the Brazilian drove into the top corner of the goal with an absolute golazo.
Portland would not go down without a fight and had a legitimate claim for a penalty just before the 80th minute. Midge Purce was through on a breakaway finding herself 1v1 with D’Angelo who charged off her line. The keeper seemed to completely wipe out Purce but the ref must have seen her get enough of the ball to keep from pointing to the spot. The Courage would manage to hold on and keep the score at 1-0 however, with the goal from Debinha sealing the victory.
- Crystal Dunn is going to be a nightmare for NWSL defenses. Her long passes to McDonald especially were effective at springing attacking behind the Thorns’ defense.
- Merritt Mathais has brought a hard edge to the backline as shown when she absolutely cleaned out a Thorns player before the 10th minute.
- Debinha and O’Sullivan had some great combinations and playing two creative midfielders should work for the Courage.
- Sabrina D’Angelo really struggled in the match - she had difficulty smothering the ball and was extremely fortunate not to give up a penalty or howler.
- Fubo went squiggle vision on me starting in the 80th minute.