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Thorns come undone in 1-4 loss at home to North Carolina Courage

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Bennett Dewan

The undefeated North Carolina Courage continued their unbeaten run in devastating fashion at Providence Park, beating the Portland Thorns 4-1 off the back of three goals in 6 minutes in the second half. It was the first time since the 2016 semifinal against the then-Western New York that the Thorns shipped 4 goals at home and the most regular season goals the Thorns have let in in the Mark Parsons era.

Jaelene Hinkle, after being listed as questionable in the injury report, started for the Courage. Crystal Dunn moved into midfield to replace the absent Denise O’Sullivan. After playing their last few games in a back four, the Thorns switched to the back three in order to counter North Carolina’s narrow playing style. Kelli Hubly returned to the starting lineup as the left sided centerback and Emily Menges moved centrally. Midge Purce returned to the right wingback role she looked so devastating in during the opening games of the season, and Ifeoma Onumonu came in to the team as the second pure striker alongside Crnogorcevic to pressure North Carolina’s back line.

The game’s opening minutes were played at high speed. Both teams opened the game with intent: Crnogorcevic had a free header in the box that she should have put on frame in only the third minute, and not long after Jess McDonald skied the ball over the goal from just a few feet out at Eckerstrom’s near post. With both defenses looking to play high lines, the Thorns and the Courage both looked for long balls in behind in the attack, to varying degrees of success.

Once things settled down the Thorns looked very capable of dealing with North Carolina’s quick outlet passes. For much of the early part of the game the Thorns had the Courage pinned in their own half, incapable of passing out from their own half without getting intercepted. Still, they looked dangerous on the break, and had better chances: Crystal Dunn fired over the bar in the 27th minute on a recycled ball off a corner the Thorns failed to clear the initial service, and Dunn again fired off Menges’ legs in the 30th.

The Courage went ahead in the 30th minute after Katherine Reynolds, playing in her 100th game in the NWSL, took away Debinha’s legs in the box and conceded a penalty. Lynn Williams converted the spot kick. The match threatened to get testy, with McCall Zerboni and Sinclair having an exchange of words early, but the center referee Joseph Dickerman (the first MLS certified referee to take charge of an NWSL match) kept things more or less under control. Christine Sinclair picked up a yellow card in the 38th minute for a high book against Zerboni.

Once the Courage were a goal ahead they were able to play more on the break, where they’re one of the most dangerous teams around. The Courage should have gone 2-0 up in the 37th minute when the courage were breaking with two, Lynn Williams put in an excellent cross and Jess McDonald fired over the bar from about a foot out facing a nearly empty net.

Ana-Marie Crnogorcevic, after looking a bit lost in the first half, came off at the start of the second for Ellie Carpenter. Carpenter dropped in at right wingback, allowing Purce to join the front line with her former Boston Breakers teammate Onumonu.

In the 55th minute, Klingenberg picked up a loose ball during a Courage attack and fed Onumonu forward. Onumonu beat Merritt Mathias to go one-on-one with Rowland but Onumonu could only manage a weak shot into Rowland’s arms.

The Thorns switched to a back four in the 56th minute, and gave up a goal almost immediately after. Crystal Dunn sent in a deep cross and Debinha found some separation from Kelli Hubly and headed past Eckerstrom at her near post.

Andressinha came on for Onumonu in the 57th minute. The Courage piled on in the 63nd minute from a Jess McDonald long throw. Sam Mewis flicked the ball on almost uncontested and Lynn Williams was there to tap the ball in. Not a minute later the Thorns were undone by another set piece: a few more missed headers in the box and Sam Mewis headed simply past Eckerstrom to put the Courage up four to nothing.

Going down by four goals seemed to settle the minds of the team somewhat: with the game more or less over the Thorns attack loosened up and started to look a little more dangerous.

Tyler Lussi came on for Midge Purce in the 72nd minute to play as the lone striker. The Thorns pushed late to get a consolation, with Sinclair getting a decent shot on target in the 84th minute forcing Rowland into a save.

Katherine Reynolds eventually got the consolation on a rebound from a Thorns set piece, hooking the ball into the net over a crowd in the 89th minute for her first ever NWSL goal in her 100th game to end a poor night on a high.