In the shadow of the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, the National Women’s Soccer League will return to action on Saturday. The North Carolina Courage will be facing off against Portland Thorns FC at 7:45 p.m. in the second match of a Pride Night doubleheader. With the World Cup still in full swing, both North Carolina and Portland will be missing many of their biggest stars. In their last match before the one week break, Kristen Hamilton dropped three goals on the Orlando Pride to earn the first Courage win since the United States women’s national team players left. This weekend’s game will be a much bigger test against the Thorns.
The Thorns are hard to judge right now
PTFC currently sits in second on the league table after winning their first home game of the season against the Chicago Red Stars back on June 1st. The 3-0 win was their fourth of the season in just seven games. The big win over Chicago went a long way towards quieting doubters who had been questioning whether the Thorns were as good after their record suggested after earning 10 of their 11 points before that match against Sky Blue FC and the Pride.
Still, the dominant scoreline against Chicago was not the product of an amazing on-field performance by Portland. Through the entire game, Portland utilized the flexible attacking power of Simone Charley and Midge Purce with through balls and direct play that bypassed the Red Stars midfield. Over and over again, the Thorns pounded the ball down the pitch, and it just kept working to get them goals. Chicago never made a strategic defensive change throughout the match, but you almost can’t blame Chicago head coach Rory Dames for not changing tactics.
In the match against Chicago, Portland was out-shot 28 to 9, they were out-possessed 59% to 41%, and they had just a 55% passing accuracy. Those aren’t comparisons that usually turn out big wins on the score sheet, but they did exactly what was necessary to beat Chicago.
The sad truth is that this feels like a winning strategy against the Courage. Throughout the season, North Carolina has struggled to shut down players like Charley and Purce in the attack. They have been especially vulnerable when the forwards get in behind the midfield but in front of the defenders. That will probably be the goal for Portland, and it will be important for the Courage to stay disciplined with their defensive midfield play. This Thorns team can be beaten, but North Carolina needs to find a way to be more productive with their chances than they have been recently. It’s too bad that you can’t just decide to be more offensively efficient.
Projecting the Courage lineup
The North Carolina Courage trotted out a new formation for the first time all season when they played against Orlando, and it seemed to work pretty well. They still struggled early in the match to create cohesive offensive play, but things started falling into place in the second half. I’m still not really sure what to make of the forwards right now. Leah Pruitt and Lynn Williams have been mostly non-existent since the USWNT players left, and it stems from a lack of cooperative efforts at the front. There are too many times when we are just banging the ball into space where we wish there was a friendly player, instead of looking up and actually finding a teammate. These errors have put more pressure on the defense, but they shouldn’t be completely exonerated for their poor play recently. The run of two draws and two losses was truly a team effort.
Now, what do we do back in goal? The rookie, Sam Leshnak, got her first start against Orlando and didn’t allow a goal. She also wasn’t ever tested. On the other hand, Katelyn Rowland has been simply miserable between the pipes this season. I think that Paul Riley will probably go back to Rowland for this game, but it might be her last chance to keep a starting role. A bad performance against Portland would come very close to the final straw for her.
Elsewhere on the pitch, I expect the Courage to come out just like they did against Orlando.
Ryan Williams has been playing will on the outside, and having Merritt Mathias and Denise O’Sullivan shielding the defense, with McCall Zerboni also dropping back in support, will be important against Portland. I’m not confident that we will win, but this provides us with a competitive opportunity.