The North Carolina Courage are one game in to their harrowing stretch of five games in two weeks. They came away with a tight 2-1 win over Sky Blue FC last weekend, but the game ended up being more difficult than head coach Paul Riley had hoped. He was forced to put in Debinha and Jess McDonald in the second half to secure the win. Both of those players had participated in international matches during the FIFA break, and their absence from the starting lineup was all about managing minutes. Despite the close match, Riley was able to rest midfielder Denise O’Sullivan who had just played a match in Ireland four days before the last game.
Now the Courage face off against their most hated foes, Portland Thorns FC, in Portland on a Wednesday night. The last time these two teams met, the Courage suffered a devastating loss thanks to a pair of own goals scored by Stephanie Labbe and Abby Erceg. Getting a win tonight would send the Courage to first place in the NWSL standings with two games in hand over the Thorns, but a loss would put the Courage five points back with just five games left on the schedule. It wouldn’t guarantee that the NWSL Shield would fall to Portland, but it would certainly further the cause. A draw, as bad as it sounds, would actually set North Carolina up nicely to win the league, but it wouldn’t feel as good...and as someone who lost their Fantasy Football matchup by 0.46 points thanks to that garbage Deshaun Watson touchdown at the end of the game on Monday night, I deserve to have my soccer team win.
The National Women’s Soccer League season has been parsed and chopped into so many tiny fragments that it has become extremely difficult to tease out any meaning from game to game. Portland got two points out of three contests with Utah Royals FC and zero points out of two matches against Reign FC so far this season, but they’ve absolute crushed the Chicago Red Stars in their last two meetings. They drew with Sky Blue FC twice, once at the beginning of the season when they were awful, but they’ve taken four points from the two matches against North Carolina so far. Add it all together, though, and it puts the Thorns right at the top of the standings.
Their situation is at lest precarious, though. They’ve played two more games than the Courage and one more than both Utah and Reign FC, who they lead by just five and six points, respectively. Dropping this game would put them in a position to fall all the way out of the playoff race, even if that eventuality is not especially likely. They have already dropped tiebreakers to both of those teams.
This puts all of the pressure on the All-Star cast to perform at home on Wednesday night. USWNT stars Tobin Heath and Lindsey Horan are both excellent playmakers, and on any given night they can turn the tide of a game. Canadian foward Christine Sinclair has been on fire since returning from the World Cup, and Midge Purce is starting to create buzz about a possible USWNT call up thanks to her brilliant play of late. Goalkeeper Adrianna Franch, who was heckled with racist and homophobic slurs in Utah over the weekend, is one of the greatest pure shot blockers in the world. When this team is on, they’re on.
But they haven’t been truly on much this season. They’ve been consistent, sure, and head coach Marc Parsons did a great job of getting quality performances from all of his players during the FIFA break, but this Thorns team isn’t as scary as they have been in the past. Their defense has been mediocre, already allowing 23 goals this season. Things won’t be any easier tonight, because defender Emily Sonnett is out for this match because of a red card she picked up in the 1-0 loss against Utah over the weekend. Her replacement, who will probably be Elizabeth Ball, will have her work cut out for her against the power of the Courage offense.
Projecting the starting lineup
With five games in two weeks, this is little more than a shot in the dark. I would be completely unsurprised if Riley opted to rest random players in various matches over the next 10 days, but as a fan and someone who dislikes the Thorns from the depths of my being - as any good Courage fan should - I really hope he comes out guns blazing.
The best possible lineup to me would be:
Jess McDonald has been truly game-changing when she has come on as a substitute. I don’t know if that’s the role she is destined to retain when she is back to full fitness, but it has been an unreal advantage for the Courage.
The mach kicks off at 10:30 p.m. ET at Providence Park in Portland, OR. It’s going to be a late night, but I hope to be rewarded with a thorough drubbing of the team I dislike the most. Catch the action on Yahoo! Sports.