In a frustrating turn of events, the Portland Thorns lost against their new rivals the North Carolina Courage 1-0 today. The Courage, who were the Western New York Flash last season and beat the Thorns in the painful September semi-final, did a lot of work over the off-season. Not only was the club bought and rebranded the North Carolina Courage; several of its players had seen National Team duty, with Lynn William scoring the game-winning goal against Germany in the SheBelieves Cup. Famous for an incredibly quick pair of forwards who could outrun most defenders, the team called for the Portland Thorns to dominate possession and press every single ball in order to win.
In reality, the game looked a lot like last Saturday’s game versus Orlando. Parsons said last week that the game v Orlando “was a wild, challenging game. It looked like a basketball game.” The same could be said for this game (perhaps it was more of a ping pong match?), and it’s not a good look for the Thorns. Against Orlando, the unforced errors and defensive miscues of the backline didn’t lead to any goal-worthy mistakes.
This time, they did. First in the penalty kick that Emily Sonnett gave up when the ball was deflected off her hand. Although Franch was able to save the resulting penalty kick, she wasn’t able to keep her clean sheet. The Courage scored in the 81st minute, and the Thorns were unable to offer a late equalizer, despite Hayley Raso’s best efforts.
A choppy first half
The first half had a promising start. In the 8th minute, there was a long build up with Portland, that ended with Long passing the ball to Webber in the box, who was unable to complete the shot. The series showed what the Thorns were good at though; passing the ball quickly between several players and building a versatile attack with several players in the box. A couple more of those sequences, and we could be dangerous.
Instead of being able to build off their strengths, though, the Thorns best chances came from set pieces. Nadim was fouled by Kawamura, and as a result had a penalty kick in a dangerous area. Although she aimed the ball well, and Allie Long was able to get her head on it, the ball did go wide. Allie Long had some other chances too; it was comforting to her see her back in the position of the attacking midfielder.
The exception to this was Henry, who tried her hand at shots on goal in this game, though this time from a distance. Henry dribbled into the space near the edge of the box in the 32nd minute and sent a low, hard ball towards the right post. A good attempt, but D’Angelo parried the shot away.
There were a lot of high balls; suddenly, the pressure was on, and the Thorns stopped building up from the back, and started just kicking long balls forward. This really doesn’t play to the Thorns strengths; they do best when working together through quick one touch passes. It seemed unsurprising that the score didn’t change.
As the teams trudged off the field at halftime, it was still 0:0. According to OPTA, Portland only had 39% of the possession, and only 2 shots on goal. There was still hope though. The score was still 0-0.
Downhill from there
The second half definitely took a turn for the worse. The Courage found some momentum, and were able to come at the Thorns in waves of attacks that got increasingly more intense, and tested the team’s fragile backline.
In the 55th minute, Mewis took a shot from distance. Franch blocked it but doesn't trap the ball, and as a result Williams tried to tap in the rebound but she's called offside. Williams mistake of coming offside was an overeager mistake, but it saved Franch’s bacon in this moment.
The pace of the game was dictated by the Courage even more. With every ball that was kicked out of the Thorns’ defensive third, the Courage could counter. The Thorns were off balance, and the Courage were taking advantage of this, pressing higher. Their five players in the midfield meant that it looked like there were more dark shirts than red, and it also meant that the Thorns couldn’t use their wingers. Unable to push as high because of the high pressure, Boureille and Kling (and later Cox) were all forced to remain back. This definitely contribute to the Thorns inability to really push high.
In the 74th minute, Sam Mewis and Emily Sonnett chased a ball to the endline, and when Mewis tried to cross it into the box, it deflected off Emily Sonnett’s hand. It was immediately called, and led to a Courage penalty kick. Franch read the situation well though, and was able to save the kick in an incredibly exciting moment. The excitement only lasted about five minutes though.
The goal, which came in the 81st minute at the head of Debhina, was long overdue. The unforced errors, sloppy defensive, and inability to keep possession of the ball for the Thorns meant that most of the second half was played in their defensive half. Brazillian midfielder and the Courage’s newest lighting fast player Debhina definitely deserved that goal for her amazing work all game.
Although the Thorns tried to pull themselves together, and perhaps get a late game equalizer, the attempts were weak. In the 90th minute the Thorns had their best chance when Cox sent the ball down the left flank, and Raso ran with it. She earned a late game corner, but the Thorns were unable to convert.
The frustrating thing about this loss was that all of the challenges that the Thorns faced against the Courage were predictable. Yes, the Courage played a 3-5-2 instead of a 4-4-2, which they played last Saturday. That tactical adjustment shouldn’t have made the Thorns fall apart the way they did. The absences of Heath, Dagny and Reynolds are obvious right now, and they shouldn’t be. The Thorns have a roster filled with talent, and a variety of incredibly skilled players. Their success shouldn’t depend on them.
In the end, the Courage played better. They dictated the pace and the mood of the game. The Thorns need to control that better, and that was exactly what Parsons said at the outset of the game. Somehow, he needs to help his team actualize this.
Bullet Point Thoughts
- Megahn Cox, one of the invitees and now a signed part of the Thorns roster, made her professional debut in this match, subbing in for Meghan Klingenburg at the beginning of the second half. She did incredibly well, defending against some really impressive players.
- Shim and Raso are always good subs; they can give the team that push of energy that they need. Raso late game runs were really important.
- Allie Long surpassed 7,000 career minutes played for Thorns FC in this match. Long is the eighth player to reach this milestone in NWSL history — and she is just the fifth player to reach that number all playing for the same team.