This was a fitting end to an unbelievable season for North Carolina, in a city that has set the gold standard for the future of the game. North Carolina came away 3-0 winners, but there was plenty more to this game than just the final result. Here are four winners and two losers from the game.
Winner: North Carolina Courage
This was a fitting end to an outrageous year from the Courage. After a regular season which destroyed the record books, if anything North Carolina did better in the postseason. Two resounding victories over their closest competition staked their claim as not merely the best team in 2018, but arguably as the best in the history of US women’s professional soccer. This is a squad without weaknesses, who can threaten from any angle, who will close down every play, win every second, third, and fourth ball, and simply make it impossible for the opposition to do anything according to plan. On a day when the Courage didn’t get any particularly outstanding performances from their ‘stars’ (Dunn, Williams, and Mewis—all of whom played well, but did not show anything out of the normal), it made no difference. Because they could rely on Denise O’Sullivan, Jaelene Hinkle, and Jess McDonald to blow off the doors. This is a team with no weaknesses and dozens of strengths, and if there were ever any doubts, they were put permanently to rest today.
Loser: Portland Thorns
This one is relative. Portland lost the game, but not because they played especially poorly. They came in with a game plan, and while it wasn’t executed flawlessly, neither was it badly botched. They looked to move the ball quickly forward, forcing North Carolina to collapse on the point of attack, thus creating space above that line for their more creative players to work. The problem is that they just couldn’t do enough to make the pinpoint long passes that were necessary to instigate the plan. As a result, they struggled to create scoring opportunities. And given the relentless Carolina assault, a few half chances were never going to be enough. All that said, this really wasn’t a bad performance from Portland. They played well. Just not well enough.
Winner: Jess McDonald
I will admit that I voted for a different Courage player as my MVP, but could not possibly argue with McDonald getting the nod. She scored twice, helped create plenty more chances, and was virtually unplayable for much of the day. With better finishing, she might have had four or five. Her dribbling was exceptional, including several moves in Portland’s box where her dance through a sea of Portland tackles almost seemed choreographed. And her contributions weren’t limited to the offensive side, with some of high pressure doing plenty to disrupt Portland’s possession. McDonald has long been one of the league’s most underrated players, and this game is merely one more in a sea of outstanding performances.
Loser: The Portland fullbacks
Ellie Carpenter will have many big games ahead of her, but this is one that she’ll probably want to forget. She struggled to get involved in the attack, sending plenty of errant passes that resulted in Carolina interceptions, and similarly struggled to contain the Courage left-sided attack. Meanwhile, on the far side, Megan Klingenberg was more involved in the attack, and helped keep Carolina slightly more contained down that flank, but also had something well below her best game. Given the range of their possible attack, Portland desperately needed its wide players to bring their A game. Without consistent threats from their fullbacks, they were stretched too thin, and unable to cover the vacancies into which the Courage players pounced.
Winner: Jaelene Hinkle
Every time she touched the ball, the stadium filled with a chorus of boos, but none of that seemed to phase Jaelene Hinkle, who turned in an inch-perfect performance, sending in crosses on a dime, and bottling up Portland’s right-side attack with ease. Hinkle is one of the keys to North Carolina’s dominance—being able to slot in one of the league’s best creative players at left back exponentially increases the defensive obligations of the opposing side, and that was on clear display today. Without anyone forcing her back, she effectively deputized as a left winger, running rampant up and down the sidelines. I voted for her as player of the match. I have no interest in supporting Hinkle’s politics, but she played a whale of a game.
Winner: The City of Portland
At this point, we’ve run out of superlatives to describe the experience in Portland, and everything feels like a cliché. But when language isn’t up to the task, clichés are all we have left. This game gave me goosebumps, and left me more than a little choked up. The atmosphere at this game was electric—the sort of thing you expect from sports with decades, or centuries, of history. The seats were packed with a sea of red. The crowd was engaged, passionate, and ready to watch a game for the ages. While they didn’t get the result they wanted, the support never wavered. And as the Thorns players circled the stadium clapping their fans after the final whistle, they were greeted with thunderous cheers. It was one of the most powerful moments I’ve ever witnessed in sports. This the future, and it’s up to the rest of us to live up to standards that Portland has set.