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North Carolina beats the Portland Thorns 2-1

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Thorns grow into the game but are held from an equalizer.

The North Carolina Courage sealed the NWSL shield with their third victory of the season over the Portland Thorns. The match featured a typically dominant shooting display from the Courage, but strong goalkeeping from Adrianna Franch kept the Thorns in position to steal a point.

Midge Purce, making her return to the team for the first time since getting injured at home against Utah, slotted in at right back on the field where she made such a big impression on the first day of the season. Ellie Carpenter, after playing 270 minutes in the Tournament of Nations, was allowed a week of rest and left off the matchday squad. For the Courage, Sam Mewis returned after being allowed to skip the Tournament of Nations while she recovered from injury.

Portland’s best early opportunity came from an interchange between Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic and Tobin Heath. Crnogorcevic got clipped just inside the box and wanted a penalty, but no call was forthcoming. Emily Sonnett very nearly gave away a penalty on the other end shortly after, awkwardly falling backwards into Jess McDonald at the top of the box in the 30th minute, but the foul again went uncalled.

North Carolina had the better of the early stages of the game. Most of North Carolina’s attacks pushed down the right side, with Merritt Mathias charging forward unmarked and Portland happy to let her cross the ball from deep, confident in their ability to deal with headers and that her service would be poor. The Courage’s best chance came in the 29th minute. Denise O’Sullivan chased down an aimless ball in the corner and nutmegged Meghan Klingenberg before serving in a ball that fizzed across the face of goal but couldn’t quite be turned in.

North Carolina finally went ahead on a quick counterattack in the 36th minute. It started from a Portland attack that could have yielded better results: Boureille sent a long ball over the top that Heath ran onto, drawing several defenders toward her in the process before sending in a cross to Raso right in front of Katelyn Rowland’s goal which Raso couldn’t quite put away. Raso recycled for Sinclair, who was robbed of the ball, sending the Courage on a rapid counter down the right wing. Jessica McDonald ran into space and delivered a perfect cross for Lynn Williams, who was able to get just in front of Emily Sonnett and tap the ball past a helpless Franch.

North Carolina doubled their lead just before halftime, with Lynn Williams again getting on the end of service down the right. Merritt Mathias, recognizing that she’d been deliberately left in space for the past half, decided to drive to the endline and cross from there instead. Her low cross was mishit by Menges and bounced off of Boureille before landing softly at the feet of Williams, who again had an easy tap-in, sending the Thorns into halftime facing a steep challenge.

The Thorns hit back just four minutes after the restart. Hayley Raso won a dangerous set piece at the top of the box with a clever bit of combination between her and Christine Sinclair. Heath delivered a perfect service flashing directly in front of Katelyn Rowland and Horan lost her marker just for long enough to put a header into the goal.

Caitlin Foord came on in the 57th minute for Crnogorcevic to see her first minutes as a Thorn. Foord immediately offered penetrating dribbles and strong combination play, but sometimes didn’t make a run her teammates wanted her to: perhaps to be expected from a player making her first start for the club and coming off a long injury layoff.

Elizabeth Ball came into the match for Midge Purce in the 69th minute, and Raso came off for Andressinha in the 73rd minute. Ball looked sharp sitting back in defense as the Thorns went to their modified back three with Klingenberg pushed further forward on the left side. Andressinha dropped into midfield alongside Boureille and Horan, allowing Christine Sinclair to push onto the forward line.

Portland grew into the match late on, cutting out North Carolina attacks quickly and charging down the left wing to get in attacks, but the final ball seemed to be just lacking. Foord ended up having the best chance to tie the match in the 71st minute as Christine Sinclair played her in on goal a little wide. Foord fired right at Rowland from a tight angle in what would be the Thorns’ only shot on target other than Horan’s goal.

The Thorns continued to improve in defense, getting good blocks in, and Franch made a few important saves, but the team lost a bit of initiative as stoppage time rolled around, unable to get forward while the Courage held the ball in the corner to run out time and complete their regular season victory lap.