Jess McDonald, take a bow. She was a woman on a mission in both playoff matches and I can’t imagine the North Carolina Courage beating Portland Thorns FC in the Championship 3-0. The Courage are now the only team in the six-year history of the National Women’s Soccer League to finish as the regular season and postseason champions.
After facing an extremely tough Chicago Red Stars team on Tuesday, a game that the Courage won 2-0, North Carolina had just three days of rest before facing off against the Thorns in the Championship. Portland had six days of rest. Of course, like the other 25 games this season, the Courage looked far fresher and more invigorated than their opponent.
The first goal of the match came in the 13th minute. Lynn Williams took a pass in from Crystal Dunn and screamed into the box. She beat two defenders and took a shot, but it was deflected. The deflection hit the top-right corner of the goal and bounced back into the box where Debinha was following up. Just like every young soccer player is taught, Debinha crashed the net and found pay dirt with her head. Debinha has a history of scoring goals against Portland, and I hope it continues for years to come.
The Courage kept up the pressure throughout the first half. Twice McDonald found herself open in the box with an open header and twice she put the ball over the frame. It felt like the half was coming to an end with a 1-0 scoreline, but then the persistence finally paid off. Jaelene Hinkle collected a clearance and sent a perfect ball behind the Portland defense. Thorns defender Emily Sonnett could only look back and point as both McDonald and Debinha attacked the ball, and McDonald redirected the ball past Portland goalkeeper Adrianna Franch for the second goal of the match.
Just before halftime, after Portland players Tobin Heath and Meghan Klingenberg both went down after weak contact, Dunn created on of my favorite moments of the match. As the foul was being given to Klingenberg she dove forward onto the grass in the imitation of being fouled. She was not given a yellow, but if she had been it still would have been worth it.
Portland came out pretty strong in the second half, and they even forced goalkeeper Katelyn Rowland to make a tough save (yeah...she only had to make one tough save). Then as the Thorns players were wearing down the Courage just kept building. In the 64th minute, the Courage took a short corner. Denise O’Sullivan passed the ball to Sam Mewis who sent it back to Merritt Mathias. She took a touch and sent a rocket into the box where McDonald was able to redirect the ball on frame with her head once again. She celebrated by removing her shirt and getting a yellow card, but with a 3-0 lead the celebration was worthwhile.
Portland had a few opportunities late, but nothing really challenged the Courage. North Carolina completed the best regular season in NWSL history by scoring five goals and allowing zero in their two playoff games. They had to play both games in the hostile Providence Park of Portland, OR despite being the league champs. What a great season!