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NC Courage vs Portland Thorns FC: The knockout round begins with familiar foes

The real tournament begins!

Chicago Red Stars v North Carolina Courage

Is anybody else having déjà vu? The 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup kicked off back in June with a nationally broadcast match between the North Carolina Courage and Portland Thorns FC. That game ended with a stoppage-time winner from Lynn Williams to cap off a tough fought 2-1 win. The Courage went on to win their next three qualification round games to secure the #1 seed in the tournament while Portland was only able to rustle up three draws and one goal in their final three matches to end up with the fewest points to end the competition.

This sets up a familiar match for the first knockout stage match of the tournament and the first game that truly matters at 12:30 p.m. ET today.

Finding a Fifth Win

During the pre-game press conference, head coach Paul Riley half-joked that he wished his team had lost one of their qualification round matches because winning seven straight games to win the tournament is extremely difficult. Despite that perspective, I’d much rather come into this game as the Courage.

North Carolina comes into this match mostly complete. Rookie forward Ally Watt tore her ACL in the first match of the tournament, but otherwise the Courage are healthier than when they started out. Jess McDonald, who sat out the first few matches of the tournament, is back and ready to play her role as super sub. The tandem of Lynn Williams and Kristen Hamilton have been improving their combination play over the last four matches, and Hailie Mace has really started to look like a professional athlete. Williams alone scored more goals than four different teams in the tournament, and her finishing improved in each match. There is no team with a more dominant offense than North Carolina.

That offensive performance starts deep in the backfield. Left back Jealene Daniels (nee Hinkle) has shown moxie and grit, taking on opposing defenders deep in the offensive third while consistently shutting down opposing attacks in her defensive third. The Courage have been working on getting rookie Addisyn Merrick to play more offensively. She shockingly won the starting spot over more established players in camp and has started three of the four matches this tournament. Coming into the tournament right back had been the only true question mark for the squad, but the rookie has pretty well cemented her spot as the starter.

Can Portland’s midfield hold up

The Courage boast the most talented midfield group in the league, and it will only be a competitive match if the Thorns can somehow stymie the Courage in the middle third. In the opening match, midfielder and USWNT star Lindsey Horan beat North Carolina goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe with a header that hit the crossbar and dropped straight down onto the end line. Portland forward Simone Charley chested the ball in for the goal, but the situation would not have been possible without Horan’s header. That was the only goal that the Courage conceded all tournament.

North Carolina has only gotten more dominant at the games have passed, and now it will be up to Horan, Angela Salem, and Raquel Rodriguez to find a way to stop the Courage. The nice thing for Portland is that those three players are all veterans who should be able to maintain composure under the high press of the Courage. Breaking out and getting on the run to counter the high press will be the only way that the Thorns are likely to score. Once they have the Courage in retreat, there is a good chance for picking up a foul near the box where Horan is deadly with her head.

That whole plan rests on Horan being available for the match. She missed the last qualification match with a hip injury and is listed as questionable for the upcoming match. Defender Becky Sauerbrunn is already out for Portland, and the other starting CB, Emily Menges, is listed questionable as well. This leaves Portland in a precarious position heading into a match that they were already going to struggle to win. Anything can happen once the players take the pitch, but it would feel like a done deal if Horan can’t take the field.

Courage player to watch

Debinha. The evolution of the Brazilian midfielder over the last three years has taken her from a 60-minute offensive piece into a 90-minute game changer. She brings a special type of flair than can find success even when the rest of the Courage squad is struggling. Especially for newer fans who might be familiar with USWNT stars like Sam Mewis or Crystal Dunn, Debinha is the linchpin of the Courage attack and she can do it all.

If you take a look at the game-winning goal from the opening match against the Thorns, it was Debinha’s near-post run that drew away two defenders and opened up Williams for the game-winning goal.

How to Watch

The game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. ET on CBS All Access for viewers in the United States and on Twitch for international viewers. You can get a 1-week free trial of All Access when you sign up.

Be sure to check out this feature piece about Debinha in anticipation for the match!