On a rainy day in Cary, North Carolina, the Portland Thorns played the North Carolina Courage in what was widely billed as as championship grudge match. North Carolina scored the only goal with a bending shot outside the box from Debinha after a tightly fought contest which either team could have won.
Parsons opted for starting the players most familiar with the team already. Kelli Hubly won the place in defense over new signing Elizabeth Ball, and Celeste Boureille got the start ahead of Angela Salem. The game started out with end to end action, with both teams transitioning from defense to attack quickly. Portland settled into the game and started building attacks, mostly through the right hand side. Emily Sonnett came out of defense to close down players aggressively, earning a yellow card for her efforts in the 33rd minute. Ifeoma Onumonu made important contributions in the buildup, dropping deep and helping Christine Sinclair to set play. Onumonu played in Mallory Weber, starting up top alongside her, with a beautiful ball through two Courage defenders in the 22nd minute, but Weber couldn’t do anything with the pass.
This pass by Onumonu is smooth. #NWSL pic.twitter.com/cLJIUAJxrC— Our Game Magazine (@OurGameMagazine) March 24, 2018
The North Carolina Courage always looked dangerous on the counter attack through the period when the Thorns were on top though, rushing down the field quickly and getting shots in. Kelli Hubly, starting her first NWSL game, was being clearly targeted by Jess McDonald and Merritt Mathias on the right. McDonald beat her a few times, but Hubly and the rest of the team recovered well. North Carolina outshot Portland seven to two in the first half, but the shots Carolina were taking weren’t particularly high quality, and mostly were taken from outside the box. Carolina’s best chances came from corners: the Thorns didn’t always immediately clear the ball and Carolina made the most of second balls, calling AD Franch into action a few times. The Courage pinned the Thorns back in their own half in the final few minutes of the first half, and the Thorns were happy to get to half time with a clean sheet.
AD #BAONPDX #NCvPOR #NWSLonLIFETIME pic.twitter.com/aBl1KbM8eK— Portland Thorns FC (@ThornsFC) March 24, 2018
The second half opened with a flurry of chances for the Courage, pushing Portland back and forcing Franch into another save. Portland stayed strong though, getting several blocks in whenever the Courage got into dangerous positions. Portland just gave up too many shots outside the box in the end. Debinha finally scored from one in the 70th minute after a quick counter attack that got her the ball at the top of the box, where she beat Franch with a bending shot into the side netting.
Midge Purce switched onto the front line when Mallory Weber left for Elizabeth Ball in the 79th minute and had an immediate impact, getting in behind but just having the ball taken off her feet by Sabrina D’Angelo in goal. Just two minutes after, Klingenberg sent a great cross in and Purce got on the end of it, but Abby Erceg made a timely block.
The game got a little scrappy in the final minutes, with both teams giving the ball away and looking a little gassed, and despite some late Portland pressure, North Carolina held on for the slim victory.
Mark Parsons, speaking after the game, said that his team “lacked belief in the final third” but overall was happy with the energy the Thorns brought: “Missing five internationals, two key players to injury and two draft picks, you’d never guess it, because we’re walking away disappointed we didn’t get three points”.