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Storylines: Portland Thorns at North Carolina Courage

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After a week off for the Tournament of Nations, the Thorns are back on the road this Sunday for their third and final game against the North Carolina Courage. With a win and some unlikely help from the Washington Spirit in their game against Seattle, Portland could jump into second place. Lose, and the Thorns probably get leapfrogged by Orlando, who play Sky Blue later the same evening. Can Portland steal one or three points against their powerhouse rivals, or will the Courage sweep the series?

Starting XI

Both Portland and North Carolina sent a lot of players to the Tournament of Nations. On the Thorns’ side, Lindsey Horan, Tobin Heath, Emily Sonnett, and AD Franch all missed the Sky Blue game for USWNT training; Andressinha, Hayley Raso, Ellie Carpenter, and Caitlin Foord reported to their respective national teams after that match. Of those players, Horan, Heath, Sonnett, Andressinha, Raso, and Carpenter have all seen significant playing time, while Franch hasn’t played and Foord has only subbed on late for Australia. All the American field players, plus Andressinha and Carpenter, will probably start Thursday — Raso may start, or may be on the bench in favor of Kyah Simon.

What all that means for the Thorns is that they’ll have to be judicious with their subs on Sunday. Sonnett will probably be fine to play 90 minutes at center back, but Heath, Raso, Andressinha, and maybe Carpenter likely don’t have a full game in them. Whether Horan plays the whole match may depend as much on how the game is going as on how much mileage she’ll have racked up over the tournament.

Obviously, this isn’t ideal, but there are several things that work in Portland’s favor here. The first is that the Thorns’ best central midfield setup doesn’t include both Horan and Andressinha anyway. It’s not hard to envision Parsons starting Horan, Christine Sinclair, and Boureille in the midfield, subbing Horan off for Andressinha at halftime or around the 60-minute mark, and slotting the Brazilian in at the number ten while Sinclair moves to the eight.

The other, even more fortuitous factor, is that Foord is getting very limited minutes with Australia as she works her way back from injury. Being able to bring her on for Raso in the second half, perhaps shifting Ana Crnogorcevic to the right wing, has to be seen as a major luxury; she should inject energy and pace into the game at a time when a lot of starters on both sides might be starting to slow down.

So, with all that said, I expect Parsons to start what’s become his first choice XI in recent weeks.

In text format: AD Franch in goal, Meghan Klingenberg, Emily Menges, Emily Sonnett, and Ellie Carpenter in the back; Lindsey Horan, Celeste Boureille, and Christine Sinclair in the midfield; Tobin Heath and Hayley Raso on the wings; and Ana Crnogorcevic up top.

Scouting the opposition

Like the Thorns, North Carolina will go into this game with many of their starters having just returned from the Tournament of Nations, but collectively, their internationals got fewer minutes than Portland’s did. Abby Dahlkemper, Crystal Dunn, and Debinha all had significant playing time, with Dahlkemper and Dunn both playing 90 or close to it in all three USA games. The other Americans at the tournament—Sam Mewis, McCall Zerboni, and Merritt Mathias—saw varying minutes, with only Mathias getting none.

The Courage players who didn’t go to the Tournament of Nations did play in the World’s Most Prestigious Tournament, the inaugural women’s International Champions Cup. That means they’ve played two games in a two-week period where the Thorns didn’t play at all. On the other hand, North Carolina goes into this with the confidence of having just beaten the best team in the world (lol).

Regardless, tired legs or not, the Courage are ridiculously good. As I’ve written before, there’s almost no way this team can’t hurt an opponent. With McCall Zerboni and Sam Mewis dictating the tempo in the center of the pitch, Merritt Mathias and Jaelene “700 Club” Hinkle both bombing up the wings from the back line, and Crystal Dunn and Debinha roaming between opponents’ lines and causing havoc, it hasn’t even mattered that North Carolina’s shooting accuracy has been comically bad at times. When you’re putting up 20 or 25 shots a game, a few of them are almost bound to go in.

In the back, North Carolina is extremely well-organized, with a league-best defensive record to match their league-best offense—they’ve conceded 14 and scored 41 for a goal differential of 27. You read that right: twenty f***ing seven. The Thorns have the second-best GD, a pitiful-by-comparison seven.

In short: hang onto your butts, everyone.

Gameplan

With all that said, North Carolina is beatable. One team, the Utah Royals, have done it; Utah has the best record against the Courage of any team this season, with two draws and a win.

That win came on a beautiful stoppage-time goal by Brittany Ratcliffe, where a Utah free kick fell to Hinkle, and Ratcliffe stripped the ball, turned, and shot from the top of the 18. What’s more instructive, though, is how the Royals were able to hold North Carolina scoreless to that point.

Anytime the Courage tried to go through Hinkle or Mathias on the wings, Katrina Gorry or Diana Matheson would step and pressure them to either cut inside or pass back. When Mewis or Zerboni were on the ball in the center, though, Utah would sit back and force them to play through traffic rather than pressing to try and get a turnover. Thinking about how strong on the ball those two players are, this strategy makes a lot of sense; neither is likely to turn the ball over, so throwing midfielders into duels with them just tends to create space for them to exploit.

North Carolina did still manage to break Utah’s defense down on occasion, but more often, their chances came when Hinkle served a ball in from deep. The Royals limited the home team to 15 shots, which doesn’t sound great, but is less than what they normally put up. Just four of those shots were on target.

Of course, this is not how the Thorns like to play. I expect them to press throughout the field the way they typically do, and maybe, with Portland finally able to field what’s close to their best XI, plus some tired legs on the Courage side, that will pay off. What I’m going to be keeping a close eye on is the Thorns’ defense — playing with four instead of three could help them look less exposed, at least if Kling plays a little more conservatively than is her wont. Carpenter on the right is also probably a better match for Hinkle than either Purce or Reynolds, who were at wingback and right center back the last time these two teams met. Finally, the presence of a more dedicated number six in Boureille could be important in keeping some numbers back on any North Carolina breakaways.

If Portland defends well for 90 minutes and finds a goal on a transition or a set piece, they could steal this thing — but it’s going to be a difficult test of how far the Thorns have come since May.