All losses hurt, and it has to be said that making it to a final two years in a row is an achievement any team has to be proud of. But to lose on this day, against this team, in this place—with all the cameras on and thoughts of history in the making on everyone’s minds—this one hurt bad.
Portland started the same lineup as they did last week against Seattle, but with Ana Crnogorcevic slotting in for Midge Purce on the right wing. North Carolina had a key absence in McCall Zerboni, who suffered a freakish elbow injury in a USWNT friendly against Chile earlier this month.
Although the game’s chippiness factor was to rise throughout the half, unlike last year’s final, this one at least began more as a soccer game than a bar brawl.
The opening minutes of the match saw Portland look fairly fluid in possession; they also succeeded in pinning the Courage in on the left flank, although North Carolina gave as good as they got, throwing numbers at Christine Sinclair and Lindsey Horan any time they were on the ball. The Thorns got a chance in the 11th minute, which Ana Crnogorcevic set up, sprinting endline up the left wing to pick up a clearance. She found Heath central, who sent the ball right to Horan, who served it back over the top to Crnogorcevic, and she finally whiffed her chance completely.
Portland had another chance a minute later. Tobin Heath dribbled two defenders on the left sideline, cut inside, and passed the ball off to Foord, who tapped it back to Heath, whose shot was blocked.
North Carolina found the first goal of the match in the 13th minute. On a breakaway, Lynn Williams dribbled into the box and hit the crossbar. The ball fell to Debinha, who was unmarked and easily tapped the ball past AD Franch from close range.
The Thorns often looked just out of step with each other when they got into the final third. In the 30th minute, Sinclair picked the ball off O’Sullivan, drove into the box, and beat two defenders to send a service to Foord, but her service just ahead of her.
North Carolina nearly made it two in the 40th minute, when Hinkle sprinted endline and beat Carpenter to send in a cross, but once again, her header was off target. Three minutes later, Lynn Williams and McDonald both sprinted between Portland’s center backs on a recycled free kick. Franch sprinted off her line, but McDonald beat her and put away a header.
In the 44th minute, Franch went down after a collision with McDonald. She stood up and got back between the posts, but it was clear that she was in pain, and the athletic trainer was summoned to the field and wrapped her ankle.
By this point, a game whose physicality had gradually ramped up was decidedly chippy. Denise O’Sullivan had already picked up a yellow for a foul against Crnogorcevic in the 42nd minute. At one point, Crystal Dunn fouled Kling, then dove to the ground in a Becca Moros-like protest against the call. Finally, with the Thorns badly needing to regroup, the halftime whistle blew and the teams headed to the locker rooms.
Portland started the second half with the momentum in their favor, but still struggled to find the final ball when they got into the final third. Heath nearly had an early look cutting across North Carolina’s defensive line, but dribbled into pressure instead of finding a shot or pass; a few minutes later, Kling sent a cross in towards Horan, but she couldn’t connect. Two Thorns corner kicks went nowhere.
As the half wore on, North Carolina started to get a few chances, including two off-target headers by McDonald around the 60th minute. Franch came up big in the 64th minute when she tipped a shot by Williams over the endline.
On the resulting corner, the Courage went short, and Merritt Mathias picked up the second ball. She sent a rocket toward goal, which McDonald impressively one-timed to the back of the net. After scoring, McDonald took off her jersey in celebration, revealing a shirt reading “Jesus paid it all,” receiving a yellow card for her trouble.
With nothing left to lose, Mark Parsons subbed Ana Crnogorcevic off for Andressinha in the 68th minute, sacrificing Crnogorcevic’s more defensive skillset on the wing for some added firepower. Portland kept knocking throughout the remainder of the half, but again and again, they were just out of step in the final third. Horan, Heath, and Sinclair all had chances, but too often chose to make one too many passes instead of shooting. When they did shoot, luck was on North Carolina’s side. Ultimately, it just wasn’t Portland’s day.
It was a beautiful run, everyone.