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Well, the Shield Curse stands. This year’s #1 team, the North Carolina Courage, lost to the #2, the Portland Thorns, in a 90+ minute bruiser of a game that saw two injury substitutions within the first 40 minutes of play. 

In the end, Portland took home the laurel wreath on a 49′ goal by Lindsey Horan, managing to continuously shut down North Carolina’s attempts to find the back of the net in front of 8,124 fans at the Orlando City Stadium, and a large audience watching at home on Lifetime. It was a long defensive game, with most of the play on both ends shut down by two stalwart midfields. And really, the win came down to clock management and endurance, with Portland just better prepared to see the match out to the very end. 


The game started out slow, with neither team really showing an advantage over the other. Even after a hard challenge by Tobin Heath forced North Carolina to use their first sub in the 12′ (Makenzy Doniak in for Taylor Smith, shoulder), the play back and forth was fairly even. The Courage had some early looks at goal in the 13′ and 14′, when Hinkle sent a cross into the box where Franch collected it easily, and then Mewis took a shot from just under the half-field line off of Franch’s distribution, sending the ball just over the crossbar. The Thorns’ first real attempt at the goal came in the 22′, when Henry sent in a ball to Horan just in front of the NC goal, but Rowland collected it easily and distributed it to her midfield. 

Much of the early attack was dominated by North Carolina, but Portland’s midfield and backline was able to deflect any attempts at their goal fairly easily, partially due to the Courage’s inability to link their play together, a problem that would ultimately prove their downfall.

In the 35′, North Carolina earned their second corner kick of the match. Dahlkemper sent the ball into the top of the box where Portland cleared it directly into the foot of Denise O’Sullivan. O’Sullivan took a direct shot through the jumble of Thorns in the box before her but Franch made an easy save. Then, just a few seconds later, Kristen Hamilton went down after attempting to challenge Heath off the ball as she drove down the left sideline. Despite Hamilton walking off under her own power (though obviously in a great deal of pain, revealed to be a suspected MCL injury), Paul Riley was forced to make his second substitution of the match in just the 39′, sending Jess McDonald onto the pitch far earlier than he had planned. 

Up until this point, discipline had been scarce, with the only real occasion coming in the 15′ when center ref Danielle Chesky pulled Horan to the side for a talking to after a hard challenge on McCall Zerboni. But in the 41′, after what looked like a fairly soft challenge on Mewis, Tobin Heath was shown the first yellow card of the match, and then in the 45’+1, Raso was shown the second for her foul on Doniak, going for the Courage player’s legs and taking her down from behind. But just before the four minutes of stoppage time expired before the half, when Doniak took down Heath on Portland’s own half, swiping at the Thorns’ legs while making no real effort to go after the ball, there was no call. Despite the seemingly obvious egregiousness of the challenge, no foul or card was given, and Portland instead was awarded a throw-in, but North Carolina intercepted and shortly after the whistle blew for the half. 

At halftime, the score stood at 0-0. North Carolina had 5 shots (1 on goal) while Portland had only notched a single shot. They had, however, racked up 7 fouls in comparison to the Courage’s 4, and been shown two yellow cards. Possession, though fairly equal, was slightly in the Thorns’ favor (52% to the Courage’s 48%), but they had only earned a single corner kick while their opponents had double that, to no effect, however. 

The second half started out with an exciting, but unproductive, attempt by North Carolina. In the 47′, Williams collected the ball near the top of the Portland 18. Franch, anticipating Williams’ attempted, came out toward the top corner of her goal box, getting a touch on the shot to deflect it as she went down but put it right in front of McDonald. McDonald turned to take a shot and literally missed the ball, the force of her kick throwing her off-balance and sending her to the pitch. The ball sat open in the box as Franch recovered her position, the Portland defense unable to clear it or collect it. Ashley Hatch made a run into the box and took the shot which went wide, finally ending the frenzied activity of both teams and giving Portland a goal kick. Just minutes after missing what looked like three sure things, the Courage gave up the ball in their own half on a handball by Dahlkemper. 

In the 49′, just minutes after missing what looked like three sure things, the Courage gave up the ball in their own half on a handball by Dahlkemper. Sonnett took the freekick and served the ball into the box where Amandine Henry headed it on to Horan, who sent it just over Rowland’s head and through her arms for the only goal of the match. 

North Carolina attempted to come back but were unable to break through the Portland midfield and defense. A hard challenge by Henry in the 52′ pushed Williams into Portland’s Raso, earning the Courage a free kick at an advantageous spot, but Mewis’s direct shot went high. And shortly after, Portland made their first substitution of the match, bringing on Dagný Brynjarsdóttir for Ashleigh Sykes in the 54′. Around this time, North Carolina’s biggest weakness began to show itself: their play was far too individual. Where the Portland players seemed to find their rhythm in the second half, spurred on by Horan’s goal, North Carolina’s attacking players neglected to link their play together in a way that would have allowed them to capitalize on their attempts at equalizing the score. Just after the Portland substitution, for example, the Courage had a throw-in opportunity in the attacking third of the field. Mewis was targeted, but unable to collect, and Hatch sent the second ball into the box toward the near post where Franch collected it easily. A runner to the post for North Carolina might have been able to flick that ball in, but no one ran the route. 

The teams continued to foul each other and challenge each other throughout the field, running the ball back and forth between the two boxes with no real attempts or chances by either side. In the 66′, a hard challenge on Mewis by Horan led to a free-kick that was cleared out by Portland, giving the Courage a throw-in in a dangerous position. McDonald threw the ball into the box where it was sent out, Erceg recovering after a scramble. Hinkle received the ball and sent in a cross. Portland blocked the initial attempt but McDonald got the ball and sent it out toward O’Sullivan, who dribbled into the box around three Thorn players. Sinclair stole it but was pressed hard by Mewis and Zerboni intercepted the attempted pass, sending the ball toward Williams in the box who made a shot but was denied by Franch once again. 

Danish international Nadia Nadim took the field for the Thorns one last time, subbing in for Raso in the 68′, and immediately began to pressure the North Carolina goalkeeper at every opportunity. After a harried attempt by NC, Doniak sending the ball into the box for McDonald, who challenged Franch for it in the air, a mistake by the Courage backline who collected Franch’s distribution led to a wild melee in the box. Courage center back Abby Dahlkemper passed the ball back to Rowland, unaware or unconcerned by Nadim’s nearby presence. Nadim chased after the ball, forcing Rowland to come almost to the top of the penalty box to attempt a save. Rowland and Nadim collided over the ball, which was still loose in the box as Nadim went down. As Erceg and Dahlkemper tried to help out their keeper, Heath moved forward to retrieve a short pass Nadim managed to make from the ground. Heath took a shot, her own momentum bringing her down as Rowland blocked it with her body but was still unable to collect the ball. Nadim, recovered, pursued the loose ball, turned with it, but lost the ball and went down again in front of Mewis who had come in to defend. North Carolina was finally able to clear but the ball landed right at the feet of Horan. Portland passed the ball around as they moved forward once again, with Nadim ultimately dribbling into the box for a shot but was denied again by Rowland, who was able to collect the ball this time. 

Brynjarsdóttir received the third yellow of the match shortly after in the 72′, as the Courage attempted to drive toward the Portland goal off of Rowland’s distribution. McDonald headed the ball forward for O’Sullivan, who was tripped up by the international. Dahlkemper took the freekick, playing it into Mewis who came off the wall, turned and took a shot toward goal that was blocked by the Portland wall. Doniak recovered the ball on the right side and sent a cross into the box which was headed out by Horan. Heath collected the ball and began to move forward, but Williams came up behind her and made a hard challenge that left Heath on the pitch in pain for several minutes.

Portland, with only just over ten minutes left in regulation, began to slow down their game, choosing not to drive forward as often and instead take time off the clock. Mewis directed a shot right into Franch’s hands in the 79′, after Williams, unable to get a good angle in the box, had passed the ball back to the top for Zerboni to lay off to the US national team player. North Carolina’s play at this point began to become a little more desperate, while at the same time the players were looking obviously fatigued. Faced with a corner kick by Portland, the Courage repeatedly cleared the ball out for throw-ins, seemingly unable to collect it and move it down the pitch. In the 86′ Mewis finally managed to bring the ball down without sending it out for a Portland throw-in and passed it downfield to Zerboni. Williams made a run into the box but with no one there to support her, or for her to pass to, what was really one of the Courage’s last good looks at goal was thwarted.

The final sub from North Carolina, their only second-half sub, was Stephanie Ochs on for O’Sullivan in the 86′. Ochs brought fresh legs and an enthusiastic spirit to the field, but her North Carolina teammates already seemed beat. She received the ball near the top corner of the Portland box in the 87′, and took a shot, but the Thorns cleared it out for a corner. The Courage responded with unorganized desperation, and seemed to start sending balls in from the back on sheer hope that Mewis or McDonald could get on the end of them and give them a second chance. But their attempts were either denied by Franch and her backline, or wasted by bad placement or lack of support. Their final chance in regulation came in the 89′, when McDonald took a throw-in. Portland headed out the initial ball, but directly back to McDonald, who leapt over Nadim to head it back toward the near post, where eventually Erceg was able to chip it toward goal, but once again, Franch was there to make the save. 

With only four minutes of stoppage time left in the game, Portland began to waste every second they could. A 90’+1 throw-in by McDonald was flicked on toward goal by Mewis but denied again by Franch. The commotion in the box left Henry down in front of her own goal, and she slyly took her time getting up, returning to the field a moment later even as Allie Long stepped up to sub in for her, eating up precious more seconds of the clock. Long was subbed in at the 90’+3, and despite the ref adding almost three more minutes on to counter the Thorns’ antics, North Carolina just couldn’t get it done, and the final whistle blew at 95:45, giving Portland their second-ever NWSL championship and denying the 2016 champions a back-to-back victory. 


Post-Game Stats and Awards

MVP: Lindsey Horan

NC 0 : 1 POR
16 Shots 4
5 Shots on Goal 3
5 Shots Blocked 0
4 Corners 2
3 Offsides 0
13 Fouls 9
0 Yellow Cards 3
347 Passes 327
55.3% Passing Accuracy 51.7%
51.9% Possession 48.1%
2 Saves 5

As you can see, North Carolina really dominated the stats [source]. They out-shot the Thorns, out-possessed them, out-passed them, and were more accurate in their passing than the champions. But they were consistently unable to capitalize, and it was their inability to follow-through, to make those second-ball runs in, to send a player toward the post in hopes of a rebound, that really left them in Portland’s dust tonight. 

When the initial disappointment is gone, North Carolina will have all the long off-season to revisit their mistakes and hopefully correct them before the 2018 season begins. But for now, Portland can rest easy knowing that when the chips were down, it was their teamwork that got them through. They might have gotten off to a shaky start in the 2017 season, but once they found their rhythm with each other, they truly were unstoppable. 

 

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