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NC Courage @ Portland Thorns FC preview: First place is on the line

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Let’s silence the biggest crowd ever!

Julia Spetsmark celebrates after scoring the equalizing goal in the last match against Portland.

On Sunday afternoon at 3:00 p.m. ET, the North Carolina Courage will face off against the largest hostile crowd in National Women’s Soccer League history (probably). The venue is Providence Park; Portland, Oregon. All signs point to this being the largest crowd in league history, breaking the 23,000+ fans that attended the first home game for the Orlando Pride back in 2016.

Luckily, this hostile environment is one of that the Courage are completely familiar with. Our girls beat the Thorns in Portland last year in the NWSL Championship game. That resounding 3-0 victory cemented the Courage in the record books and put a cherry on the top of the best season in NWSL history. It’s a season that is never going to be repeated.

But this isn’t the same Courage team from last year. Sure, the major players are all the same, but there has been something off this season. It probably boils down to the whole USWNT-winning-the-World-Cup thing, because four of our best players were off making a whole different kind of history for themselves. Now it’s back to club play for the four Courage players - Abby Dahlkemper, Sam Mewis, Jess McDonald, and Crystal Dunn - as well as the four Thorns FC players - Tobin Heath, Lindsey Horan, Emily Sonnett and Adrianna Franch. It’s no wonder this will be the biggest crowd in history...You can pretty much make a whole team of players who have won the World Cup between these two squads.

Portland is struggling, but still dangerous

The Courage have been playing a bit below their ability this season, but Portland takes that statement to another level. In just the past seven days, PTFC has drawn with Sky Blue FC and lost to Reign FC in consecutive matches. Those are two bad results that took the Thorns from first to third in two games, and they could fall all the way out of the playoff picture if things go poorly for the next seven days.

Despite their struggles, the Thorns are still a dangerous team. They have scored more goals than any other team this season (31) and they have only allowed 20 goals against. Canadian striker Christine Sinclair has scored 7 goals in 9 appearances this season, and she is in great form right now. Midge Purce is right behind her with 6 goals, and she might not even make the starting lineup with Heath and Horan back. Her pace and attacking prowess would be deadly in a starting role or off the bench.

Then there are the two American attackers themselves. Heath and Horan are probably the two best tactical players in the United States. They both have the tenacity and ability to carve up defenses and break ankles all by themselves. Together, they can take perfectly placed shots whenever they are given the smallest amount of space. It will be absolutely imperative that our defenders close down on them quickly, while also coordinating to prevent slip passes in behind the line.

Apart from wingback Ellie Carpenter, the Thorns are coming into this game with almost no injuries or absences. Fortunately, there will still be weak links for the Courage to exploit. The defense for Portland has been subpar this season compared to other top teams. They have the tendency to overextend at times, which is especially dangerous against the Courage. Gabby Seiler and Elizabeth Ball can both be exploited by the Courage due to their inexperience, which should leave some space for Dunn or Debinha to disrupt the structure of the back line.

What can we make of the injuries?

While Portland is almost completely healthy, the Courage are littered with Questionable players on the injury report. Lynn Williams (Right Thigh), Jessica McDonald (Right Ankle), Samantha Mewis (LeftThigh), and Ryan Williams (Right Ankle) are all unknowns at this point. The Ryan Williams injury, while important from a theoretical standpoint where Merritt Mathias goes down in warm-ups is certainly the least troubling. Then comes Lynn Williams, who will be a monster off the bench behind Kristen Hamilton if she can go. Not the end of the world if she can’t, but L. Williams is definitely an upgrade over Leah Pruitt or Julia Spetsmark in a reserve role. Then McDonald, who definitely needs to be starting if Williams can’t play. Her presence at the top of the formation is so much better after the World Cup, and missing her would really put a dent in the team. The most important player on the injury report is Mewis, who is desperately missed in the 6 role. She is irreplaceable.

The good news? Crystal Dunn is healthy. I’m not sure if she slots in right above or right below Mewis in the “who is the most important” list, but she’s right at the top. Having her healthy frees up Denise O’Sullivan and McCall Zerboni to play holding midfielder if Mewis can’t go. Head coach Paul Riley specifically said that he expected Lynn Williams to be healthy enough to play in this game, so I’m going to draw up a starting lineup with that in mind.

This lineup assumes that Riley is being cautious with Mewis and McDonald. I would guess that Zerboni would be replaced by Mewis around the 75th minute, Williams would be replaced by McDonald around the 60th minute, and Debinha would be taken off for Pruitt around the 80th minute. This naturally assumes that Mewis and McDonald are only healthy enough to play limited minutes. If they start, just flip the names of the players and keep the minutes the same.

How to watch

This is going to be one of the best games of the whole season. Playing against Portland in Portland is the NWSL equivalent of the USWNT playing against France in Paris at the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup. This match will be broadcast on ESPNEWS for viewers in the United States, and it can be viewed on NWSLsoccer.com for our international followers.

If the Courage win or draw this match, they will move into first place on the league table. If they lose, Portland takes first and the Courage drop to third. It’s tight at the top of the standings right now, but at least the USWNT players missing games is nearly over.