The North Carolina Courage (9W-2D-0L; 29 points) are tearing up the National Women’s Soccer League as they remained undefeated by beating Portland Thorns FC (4W-3D-4L; 15 points) on the road Wednesday night. The 4-1 win was the largest margin of victory for the Courage this season, and the team now has five wins in their five road games this season.
An evenly balanced first half
The first four matches between the Courage and Thorns had ended in 1-0 scorelines, and the series was split with two wins and two losses for each side. Thus, when Debinha was fouled in the penalty area in the 30th minute to earn a penalty kick it felt like that might have decided the game. Lynn Williams stepped up to take the shot after missing the last three matches with a hamstring injury and finished the shot easily against Portland goalkeeper Britt Eckerstrom.
Up to that point the two teams had been evenly matched with neither team getting the definite advantage. Both North Carolina and Portland had generated solid scoring opportunities, but on both ends the defenses had been up to the test. The game increased in intensity for the remainder of the second half and play was stopped frequently by the head referee’s official. The best run-of-play scoring opportunity came in the 37th minute when Jess McDonald stunningly skied a shot from about 4 yards away on an absolutely perfect cross from Williams after a swift counter attack.
The two teams went into the locker room at halftime with the away team up 1-0 and both teams feeling a little slighted by the way the ball bounced.
A flurry of goals shocks the Thorns
It was clear from the second half kickoff that the Courage were thinking about their disappointing second half performances from the previous two matches. The team came out with fire and intensity, but it looked like their aggression was hurting more than helping as the Courage committed four fouls and gave up three shots in the first ten minutes after the restart.
After weathering the storm, the Courage came back with another strong counter. Sam Mewis intercepted a long pass and redirected the ball to Crystal Dunn. Dunn played a quick give-and-go that sent her streaking up the right sideline past the Portland defense. She then sent an absolutely perfect cross from the far sideline that found the head of a streaking Debinha. The Brazilian attacking midfielder sent a rocket off of her head and into the goal to extend the lead to two. Debinha has scored three goals in the five meetings between these two teams.
The Courage kept the pressure on after the restart and quickly took to the attack. They earned a throw in deep in the Portland defensive third after a miscommunication between Eckerstrom and her defender led to a bad clear. McDonald took one of her famous long throw ins, and the Courage used their size to bounce the ball across the box. After McDonald’s throw the ball found the head of Abby Erceg, then the head of Sam Mewis before falling to the foot Williams who finished easily. In the 62nd minute the Courage had taken a 3-0 lead.
The final goal for North Carolina came just two minutes later. Jae Hinkle took a corner that found the head of McDonald in the box. Her header bounced off the ground, and McCall Zerboni played the ball along with her head. Mewis was sitting on the back post waiting for the ball, and she headed it over the outstretched hand of Eckerstrom. The Courage were putting their aerial skills to good use as their last three goals were scored off a combination of six heads.
The game would end 4-1 as Portland defender Kat Reynolds, playing in her 100th game, took a shot from the top of the box and beat Rowland easily. This was the third consecutive match without a clean sheet, but in a game like this it wasn’t too big of a problem. I’m sure the goal will leave a sour taste in the mouth of head coach Paul Riley.
A strange match on the horizon
The North Carolina Courage will face off against the Houston Dash in Houston for the final match of their four-game road trip, but it won’t be a full team that plays in the Lone Star State. Five players - Abby Dahlkemper, Merritt Mathias, Dunn, Mewis and Zerboni - were called up for the June friendlies against China with the USWNT, and they will be unavailable to play in the June 3rd match against the Dash. Similarly, Denise O’Sullivan will be in Ireland trying to help her team secure a trip to the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France. With six players absent, Riley will have to dig deep into the roster for the starting lineup. It should be a fascinating match and an opportunity for some new players to shine.