Emotions are always high when the Portland Thorns (4-1-2) face off against the North Carolina Courage (3-2-3), a rivalry exacerbated by dramatic postseason results and — when the teams match up at Providence Park — Thorns supporters booing Jaelene Hinkle for homophobic comments every time she touches the ball.
After dominating the NWSL table for the past two seasons, the Courage have looked less imposing as of late, posting only one win in their last five games. That said, they’re still a talented, attack-minded team with the ability to grind out results; this game promises to be an exciting one.
After anchoring Portland’s backline for the past four games, Emily Menges will sit this one out due to a thigh injury. The Thorns are also without Angela Salem, who went down in the first half with an ACL tear in last week’s match against the Chicago Red Stars, and Dagny Brynjarsdottir has been called into the Icelandic women’s national team for a pair of friendlies against Finland.
It wouldn’t be shocking to see the Thorns continue to utilize the four-and-a-half-back we saw last week against the Red Stars; it allows Portland to sit with more players behind the ball in a match where they could be threatened on the counter. Without Menges, they’ll have to make some adjustments to the formation, sliding Elizabeth Ball to more of a centerback role alongside Katherine Reynolds and Gabby Seiler. Madison Pogarch fits in as a left wingback; she has speed, a good left foot, and a solid defensive presence. Displaced from her usual role by Pogarch, Meghan Klingenberg can switch to the right side of the field, playing a role similar to what we saw from Ball against Chicago.
Down both Salem and Brynjarsdottir, Portland will have to improvise at center mid. Celeste Boureille is the obvious choice to step in; she’s already played significant minutes there for the Thorns, including subbing in for Salem last weekend. Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic can drop back beside Boureille, making use of her versatility, athleticism, and keen ability to read play to fit in a role where Portland finds themselves lacking depth.
The Thorns will have to find their fifth number ten of the season with Crnogorcevic playing a less advanced role. They can look to Simone Charley, whose playmaking ability has already set up three goals for Midge Purce in the last two games. Charley is comfortable with the ball at her feet and can break down defenses on the dribble. She has a knack for finding teammates in and around the box, oftentimes leading to a dangerous look on goal.
“Every time we play North Carolina, there’s definitely a little edge to it,” Britt Eckerstrom acknowledged. She emphasized that the Thorns “want to stay calm, composed, and ready to get after it.” That mindset will be a vital aspect of Portland’s performance this weekend; the Thorns haven’t beaten the Courage since the 2017 NWSL Final, looking as if they didn’t believe they could match North Carolina’s intensity when the two sides met in last year’s championship game.
Despite injuries and lineup changes, the Thorns are focused on retaining their core principles and carrying the momentum of their last two wins into this game. “We’ve started this (World Cup) period really well,” Thorns coach Mark Parsons said at training this week, “and we’ve focused on building off that. We’re very determined to put in a good performance that can give us a chance to get a tough result on the road against a good team.”
Drawing from a focused mentality and their recent results, Portland will continue to play direct and pressure the Courage backline. North Carolina has been exposed by balls over the top this season, something the Thorns can try to capitalize on going forward. Purce has proven her ability to find the back of the net in the past couple games; she’ll want to add to her goal count and continue to develop her partnership with Charley. Parsons believes the duo has yet to reach their full potential. “I thought Simone and Midge were connecting at around 70, 80 percent of what they’re capable of,” he said of what we’ve seen so far this season.
The Courage have traditionally commanded matches through a high press and their box midfield of Crystal Dunn, Sam Mewis, McCall Zerboni, and either Debinha or Denise O’Sullivan. With three of those players off representing their countries in the World Cup, North Carolina has struggled to dictate games in the same way, though they’re still tied with the Thorns for the league lead in goals.
Like Portland, the Courage rely on wingbacks, making use of Merritt Mathias and Jaelene Hinkle to provide width going forward. Turning to the veteran leadership of Reynolds, the Thorns will have to be well-organized defensively, working to minimize North Carolina’s crosses into the box and the Courage’s opportunities on the end of them.
Lynn Williams is the attacking player that North Carolina has turned to during this World Cup period, expecting her to step up as she has in seasons past. Williams has tallied three goals this season from 26 shots. Kristen Hamilton is coming off a hat trick against the Orlando Pride and presents another scoring threat.