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NC Courage vs Portland Thorns FC championship preview: The top two teams square off again

Can the Courage break the curse in a hostile environment?

The North Carolina Courage huddle after their 2-0 semifinal win over the Chicago Red Stars.

It has been less than a year since the North Carolina Courage were beaten 1-0 in the 2017 NWSL Championship Game by Portland Thorns FC. In the National Women’s Soccer League’s first five seasons, the regular season champion has been unable to come away with the championship trophy, but the Courage are ready to give it another shot.

On Saturday afternoon at 4:30 p.m. ET, the Portland Thorns will host the North Carolina Courage in the championship match. If that sounds awkward to you, it is. After breaking six different records on their way to a second regular season title, the Courage will have to play both of their playoff games in the least-hospitable stadium in the league. Before Portland fans come in here and say something dumb like “we actually only hate Jaelene Hinkle, and we were otherwise neutral,” take a listen to the end of the video after Sam Mewis scored the game-securing goal on Tuesday night.

Those fans aren’t neutral. Those fans hate the Courage through and through, and that’s OK, we don’t like them either.

The season all comes down to this

Regardless of whether the Courage win or lose on Saturday, this season will never be forgotten. North Carolina put together the best season of any women’s professional soccer that the United States has ever seen. They lost just once out of 24 matches and won a record-breaking 17 games. They scored the most goals ever (53) and allowed the fewest goals ever (17). They won the inaugural ICC Women’s Tournament by beating Paris Saint-Germain and Lyon, two of the strongest women’s clubs in the world. In short, they’ve done it all. Well, except win the championship.

Portland started the season sluggish, like they normally do. They didn’t find their footing until midway through the season, but they flew up the rankings and ended up securing a second-place finish for the second straight year. The Thorns rode the combined efforts of Lindsey Horan and Tobin Heath, two of the best women’s players in the world, to a series of strong wins that culminated in their 2-1 semifinal victory over Seattle Reign FC.

The offensive performance from Portland has been impressive in 2018. They scored the second-most goals in the league (40), and Horan challenged for the Golden Boot award with 14 goals on the year. A healthy Heath was able to set her team up to score seven times, and she scored seven goals as well. Add in Christine Sinclair, Canada’s most iconic women’s soccer star, and you have a darn good offensive presence. Unfortunately for Portland, speedy Australia forward Hayley Raso broke her back in the teams penultimate regular season match and won’t be available for the final. Despite riding a four-game winning streak, this team does have weaknesses.

The Thorns defense has been subpar this season. After allowing 19 goals in 2016 and 20 goals in 2017, the Thorns regressed significantly in 2018 allowing the ball to find the back of their net 28 times. Part of that regression comes from the fact that all-star goalkeeper Adrianna Franch, who Jill Ellis hates for some reason, missed a large chunk of the year due to injury. Even after returning, the chemistry on the back line just doesn’t seem to be there. The Courage won 1-0 in the season opener and then 2-1 toward the end of the season with Franch in goal, but they won 4-1 in the match where they faced backup goalkeeper Britt Eckerstrom. Even though they aren’t the dominant force of 2017, this defense will still be difficult to break down.

A rivalry for the ages

The North Carolina Courage are a new team, but if we take this back to the Western New York Flash there is a lot of history to work with.

In 2013, the first year of the NWSL, the WNY Flash won the regular season title, but they were beaten in the championship by the Portland Thorns. There aren’t many players in common between those two teams and the ones they represent today.

In 2016, the Thorns once again secured the top spot in the league. They met the Flash in the semifinal in Portland where they became the only #1 seed to ever lose a home playoff match. The Flash rode goals from Samantha Mewis, Makenzy Doniak, and a brace from Lynn Williams to a 4-3 victory. Portland’s goals were scored by Sinclair, Emily Sonnett, and Horan, so even if the match in 2013 doesn’t count for the rivalry, this one definitely does.

During the offseason, after they won the 2016 Championship, the Flash relocated to North Carolina and rebranded as the Courage. Portland and North Carolina each won their respective home matches during the regular season before the Thorns earned a 1-0 win in the final.

This season, the Courage won all three matches they played against Portland, and they have a chance to be the first team to win the Shield and the Championship in the same season. Here’s the projected starting lineup.

I’m sticking with Katelyn Rowland because the league doesn’t put out injury reports in sufficient time for them to be included in this article. If Rowland is healthy I would expect her to get the stat, if she isn’t then Sabrina D’Angelo will start in her place. Rowland has better rapport with the team right now, but either one is fine. Sabs started against Lyon and played perfectly.

Otherwise, it would take a pretty serious injury to change this lineup. While I think it might be prudent to start Kaleigh Kurtz in place of Hinkle, I think there is almost no chance that Riley does that. Hinkle was rattled by the boos on Tuesday, and they are going to be much louder on Saturday.

This is the best team in women’s soccer. It’s too bad McCall Zerboni isn’t fit to play, but otherwise we couldn’t hope to be in a better position heading into the final.