This was always going to be a hard week.
The Thorns were far from perfect against North Carolina. They made mistakes that they explicitly headed into the game wanting to avoid. But the necessary perspective is that this Courage side is without a doubt the most dominant team in the history of the NWSL — and possibly in the history of women’s professional soccer in the United States. In that sense, and several others, this game isn’t without positives — in short, it’s the perfect fit for this column! Let’s break it down.
A rose to the game plan.
Portland’s approach was, in a sense, the opposite of what Utah tried against North Carolina in June. Where Laura Harvey had her team pressure the Courage on the wings but sit back in the center of the pitch, the Thorns pushed their opponents out to the wings, where they let Merritt Mathias and Jaelene Hinkle — as well as Jessica McDonald, Lynn Williams, Denise O’Sullivan, and whoever else wanted to get in on the party — have space.
That plan worked over and over, especially since the Courage were channeling almost every attack up the right. The reasoning makes sense from both angles: Meghan Klingenberg is not very fast, while Mathias is not a very good crosser, so the way to approach that matchup is to have Kling drop and encourage Mathias to send hopeful balls in from deep. It was only when a Courage player went endline that Kling, Menges, or whoever else would step to try to keep them from crossing. You can see it on this 13th-minute transition play. Tobin Heath keeps Mathias wide, Kling gives her space on North Carolina’s right, and sure enough, she sends in a cross 30 yards out from the endline.
Williams wound up getting on the end of this, but with Midge Purce marking her, she was only able to head it out for a goal kick.
They did it on the other side, too. Here are Purce and Celeste Boureille giving Hinkle as much space as she wants on the left, to encourage her to cross from deep.
This one fell into space to the right of the penalty area, where Williams tracked it down and couldn’t get past Emily Menges with either a dribble or a decent cross.
The Courage are always going to take a ton of shots. What this strategy meant was that they were spending most of their time on poor-quality chances that the Thorns defense was confident they could deal with. It worked, until it didn’t.
A thorn for not sticking to the game plan.
In the 37th minute, this idea broke down. After what was probably Portland’s best chance of the half — with Boureille playing a nice ball over the top for an onrushing Heath, and Heath just getting her cross to Hayley Raso off in time — the Courage regained possession and sent a ball down the right for McDonald.
I’m not sure why Kling cuts inside here, or why Menges doesn’t step with more urgency; the area McDonald is sprinting into is exactly where the Thorns don’t want to allow the Courage to cross from.
If that first goal might be excusable in part because of McDonald’s speed, North Carolina’s second was worse, with Heath giving Mathias time and room to cross from that same space on the right of the penalty area. Granted, it didn’t end up being a good cross, and Menges should have cleared it, but she also shouldn’t have been allowed to cross in the first place.
A thorn to the Courage, in general.
Needless to say, those mistakes shouldn’t happen. At the same time, it really can’t be overstated how dominant this Courage team is. A big part of that is basically just physics: I don’t know that there’s a single player in their starting lineup who couldn’t beat, or at least tie, any Thorns player in a sprint. That speed means they can commit just about any number of players to any area of the field at a given time without having to worry about a numerical disadvantage elsewhere, because they can recover absurdly fast.
In the seventh minute, after a North Carolina corner kick got cleared, Heath poached a careless pass in the center of the field and did a nice give-and-go with Raso. That’s Abby Dahlkemper in the bottom-right corner. She had just taken the corner kick.
She has no problem closing that distance.
Heath beats Dahlkemper, but in the amount of time it takes any help to arrive — and granted, maybe you could argue that more Thorns should be crashing the box here — the entirety of the Courage defense is already back.
Tobin Heath and Hayley Raso are not slow!
To reduce the Courage just to speed is, of course, unfair: It’s not just that they’re fast, but the way they deploy that speed, and what it allows them to do, is what makes them so overwhelming. You didn’t come here to read an essay about how North Carolina plays, so I’m not going to get into that. Instead, I’ll just point out that any time a team plays the Courage, they’re going to be spending most of their time time absorbing attacks. It may be disappointing when they slip up enough to let a couple of those attacks succeed, but it should never be all that surprising. At some point, it’s just a numbers game.
A rose to Caitlin Foord.
Y’all. Caitlin Foord is the real deal.
Immediately after subbing on in the second half, Foord sprinted onto a clearance after a Courage corner kick, beat Mathias with a clever touch and a burst of speed, beat her again after she recovered, and then sent a long ball up for Raso. That service wasn’t great, falling too close to Abby Dahlkemper, but the sequence is an encapsulation of what Foord brings to the table: impressive speed paired with skill on the ball and good vision. In the half-hour she played, she combined with Heath, Horan, and Sinclair a number of times despite never having played a game with them. She played well with her back to goal and had a couple looks of her own.
It was just a glimpse of what Foord can do, but it’s hard not to wonder how different this season could have felt for the Thorns if she hadn’t started it injured.