The Thorns are at home again tomorrow to take on their actual rivals (sorry, Seattle), the North Carolina Courage. With North Carolina in first place with 26 points and an 8-0-2 record, the midweek game represents a serious test for a Portland side that had a rocky start to the season. Making matters more difficult, Portland is coming off a relatively short turnaround from a Friday night game, while North Carolina will have had a full week since they last played.
Handing this Courage side their first loss of the season would be an enormous statement from the Thorns, showing both that their recent results represent a real turnaround, and that North Carolina isn’t as far ahead of Portland as the table suggests.
With Emily Sonnett still out, I expect to see the same lineup the Thorns used last Friday against the Royals: Meghan Klingenberg, Emily Menges, Katherine Reynolds, and Midge Purce in the back, with Britt Eckerstrom in goal; Andressinha and Lindsey Horan in the double-pivot, Christine Sinclair in the ten, Tobin Heath and Ellie Carpenter on opposite wings, and Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic up top.
Note that although backup keeper Bella Geist doesn’t appear on the injury report as of the time of writing, Mark Parsons confirmed after training that she is still unavailable, meaning Adelaide Gay remains the number two in goal.
Including last year’s championship, this series is even all-time, with two wins and two losses on either side. All four games have been decided by a scoreline of 1-0. In each of the Courage’s wins, the game-winner has been scored by Brazilian midfielder Debinha. For Portland, Hayley Raso and Lindsey Horan have been the goal-scorers—Raso off a cross from Kling and Horan, of course, off a long free kick by Emily Sonnett in the 2017 championship.
As we all know, though, this rivalry didn’t materialize out of thin air in 2017; the animosity really started in 2016, when the then-Western New York Flash dashed Portland’s championship hopes in the Thorns’ first-ever home semifinal.
Scouting the Opposition
North Carolina has been on a rampage through the first nine weeks of the season using the same basic toolbox they’ve always used; press relentlessly, force turnovers in the midfield, take two or three passes to get into the box, rinse, repeat. Their roster has gained one enormous weapon, however, in Crystal Dunn. Since returning stateside from a stint at Chelsea, she’s mostly played as the deeper-lying of two forwards alongside Jessica McDonald and is currently sitting on four goals and two assists in 10 starts. Dunn is fast, technical, and all-around terrifying, but North Carolina’s two most important players are lower down the pitch.
It’s frankly unbelievable that one team is legally permitted to have both McCall Zerboni and Sam Mewis. These two defensive midfield destroyer/creators have been among the best players in the league this season. They absolutely boss the central midfield, and both players can both set teammates up going forward and score themselves. Mewis is so much taller than everyone else that on the field, it looks like someone clicked on her and typed [setscale 1.5] into the console (sorry, I’m sorry). With teams seemingly targeting the 5’3 Andressinha these last few weeks, look for Horan to be on guard duty again, and cross your fingers she doesn’t pick up a fifth yellow.
North Carolina’s defensive record, meanwhile, is among the strongest in the league, with nine goals conceded in 10 games.
Jaelene “Personal Reasons” Hinkle, North Carolina’s left back, is listed as questionable on the injury report. Since Paul Riley doesn’t rotate his squad, ever, it’s something of a mystery who will slot in if she doesn’t play. Cari Roccaro? I’m legitimately stumped. The rest of the starting lineup should be unchanged.
How the Thorns can win
Last week against Orlando, North Carolina’s defense got exposed repeatedly in a ridiculous 4-3 win. Orlando was generous in that one, coughing up three goals (plus a couple early ones that were waved off) via stupid defensive errors. North Carolina got their first when the Pride let Zerboni practically stroll into the penalty area and get on the end of a cross by Merritt Mathias, and then couldn’t clear her deflected shot. Later, Shelina Zadorsky fell down while trying to make what should have been a routine clearance, and Debinha capitalized.
Jokes aside, just as important to the Thorns was that Orlando’s goals came from equally poor defending on the Courage side. In one instance, Mathias (recent USWNT call-up Merritt Mathias, that is) literally jogged back on defense as five-time world player of the year Marta dribbled up the left wing. Abby Dahlkemper, seeing this, stood back and twiddled her thumbs as Marta sent in a low cross for Chioma Ubogagu. The hits kept coming: Alanna Kennedy (who scored the game-winner against the Courage in the last regular-season game of 2017 with a set piece header) unmarked on a corner kick. Rachel Hill wide open at the far post, with Marta on the ball.
Folks, this is comically bad stuff.
To be clear, don’t expect the Courage to repeat this performance against the Thorns. A rivalry tends to bring out the better angels of each team’s nature. The lesson from these meltdowns, if there is one, is simply that North Carolina aren’t the titans their record suggests. That said, there is some actionable information we can draw from this game.
North Carolina’s press often involved throwing two or three or four players at whichever Orlando player had the ball, leaving vast areas of space for the Pride to operate in whenever they were able to play out of that pressure.
Look familiar? It should.
Orlando wasn’t always able to capitalize on this, but they got the chance to do so over and over. One especially good chance came when Hinkle and Abby Erceg were drawn to Marta as if by a magnet as the Brazilian dribbled up the right wing, opening up a hole for her to find Christine Nairn in the box. Tobin Heath is another player who tends to attract multiple defenders, and it’s not hard to imagine her causing similar problems for the Courage. Another potential liability for North Carolina is their high defensive line, especially with both fullbacks—one of whom, tonight, may be a bench player, and one of whom is Merritt Mathias—pushing forward.
The more important issue, though, is going to be holding North Carolina scoreless. The defense, as we’ve seen in past meetings between these two teams, is up to the task, but it’s going to be extra important for them not to repeat the kinds of mistakes that have led to concessions this season—recall that on opening day, they kept the Courage off the board until Lindsey Horan gave Debinha space in front of the back line to get a shot off.
Let’s close by remembering another fine moment from these teams’ last meeting.