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Storylines: Portland Thorns vs North Carolina Courage, NWSL Championship 2017

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The Thorns head to Orlando for a chance at their second NWSL championship

Nikita Taparia, stepoverfc.com

The season is spent. In Portland, the leaves are turning and the rain is back. But in Orlando, it’s still a balmy eighty degrees, and one thing remains for the Thorns: to bring home the championship trophy this Saturday. The North Carolina Courage stand in their way.

Who’s ready for one last game?

Redemption captured. On to stage two: revenge.

With Portland through to the final for the first time since they won it in 2013, a neatly-packaged narrative has dropped at our feet: the question of whether these Thorns can take down the rebranded version of the team that so painfully knocked them out of the playoffs last year.

The players, perhaps predictably, keep saying they’re not thinking about revenge. “ I think our motive was all about getting a home playoff game,” said Christine Sinclair on Tuesday, “and winning that, and getting to the final... we haven’t given it too much thought.”

Whether that’s totally true, or part spin in the “one game at a time” tradition, you can decide for yourself. For me, the prospect of the Thorns taking on the same team that took them down last year is both daunting and thrilling. These are the top two teams in the NWSL, from both objective and observational standpoints. If Portland wins, they’ll have cemented a legacy as one of the best in the history of this young league.

Setting the stage

On Sunday, the North Carolina “Western New York Flash” “Back on my Bullshit” Courage played a semifinal against Chicago that was probably as different in tone from the Portland-Orlando game as you could get. From early on, it was clear the game was going to be, at best, a 1-0 affair. The Red Stars’ defense and the Courage’s offense were deadlocked until the 89th minute, when Denise O’Sullivan—the Irish international waived by Houston in late July—sent in a rocket after a corner kick service bounced outside the box. Cruelly for Chicago, it was Julie Ertz, one of the team’s most important players this year, who touched the ball last, just deflecting it and sending it past Naeher.

It’s definitely the dispreferred outcome for Portland. North Carolina has been the best team in the league all season. Their win on Sunday, regardless of how unlikely they looked to score for the first 88 minutes, is a testament to the gritty mentality this team retains from last season. They’ve retained their other good qualities, too, including terrifying speed from Lynn Williams and a penchant for scoring on set pieces. Meanwhile, they’ve gained experience and organization in the back, as well as some new and improved offensive threats in players like Ashley Hatch and Taylor Smith.

On the other hand, Portland is peaking at the right time. Their takedown of Orlando last week, while not quite as one-sided as the scoreline made it seem, was decisive. The defense remains as strong as ever, and the Thorns, too, have found the best use of players like Sinc and Meghan Klingenberg, with the Sinc-at-number-ten offensive plan only having improved with the addition of Tobin Heath.

Round 3 for Portland and North Carolina

North Carolina is one of the three teams Portland only faced twice this season. The previous two both ended 1-0, the first in the Courage’s favor, the second in Portland’s. There might not be much to draw from either.

“I think this game will be different,” said Mark Parsons at training Tuesday. The first match was the second game on the Thorns’ schedule this season, at a time when the team was still very much struggling to work out a Tobin Heath-less identity. The second meeting was closer to how Portland has looked late in the season, but it was still basically a gritty defensive effort by a somewhat depleted roster. “The one here, that was a tight game, and we were missing a lot of players at that game to the Euros.”

The Courage come into this match with a slightly different look, too. They lost Debinha to a gruesome-looking elbow injury in the semifinal; on the bright side, for them, they signed O’Sullivan. Debinha isn’t a huge loss, in my view. She was great in the early part of the season, adding a middle-of-the-park creativity that had been missing from the Flash, but hasn’t looked great more recently. O’Sullivan is still something of a wild card. She’s a depth piece, but as we saw on Sunday, she has the ability to come up big in important moments.

The Abbies vs the Emilies

We’ve talked plenty about Portland’s league-leading back line, anchored by Emily Sonnett and Emily Menges. But there’s another set of center backs in town: Abby Erceg and Abby Dahlkemper.

Thorns fans can whine all we want about the repeated snubs the Menges and Sonnett have suffered when it comes to any kind of league-wide recognition (we’ve probably not, I should add, whined enough on behalf of Katherine Reynolds, who, not coincidentally, got healthy right when the Thorns’ season turned around). Erceg and Dahlkemper are damn good, too—they both deserved consideration for defender of the year alongside our center backs.

While under Parsons, the Thorns have always been strong defensively, with Paul Riley’s Flash/Courage side, a newly stalwart defense is a big part of what turned a formerly fast, exciting, rough-around-the-edges team into a truly good team. The Courage have the league’s second-best defense, with 22 goals allowed on the season. They only conceded more than one goal on four occasions, one better than the Thorns.

It’s worth noting that if anything, the major difference between the two teams’ defenses seems to be their keepers. AD Franch has the best save rate in the league, and no tally marks under the column labeled “error leading to goal.” Katelyn Rowland is just behind her in saves-to-shots ratio—albeit over a shorter period of time, as North Carolina’s starting keeper was initially Sabrina D’Angelo—with two in that second stat.

Ultimately, this is going to be a defensive contest. Franch has a job, and if she does it, it’s going to be a low-scoring game. If Portland can beat Dahlkemper and Erceg more than once, they should be in good shape.