The Portland Thorns ecked out a 1-1 draw on the road against the North Carolina Courage on the back of a first half goal from Midge Purce and a whole lot of hanging on. After going up early in the first half and keeping the Courage nearly off the shot sheet entirely, the Thorns couldn’t quite deal with North Carolina’s tactical changes that pushed Portland into survival mode for most of the second half. The Courage’s superior conditioning shone through as Portland ended the game with their players obviously short of fitness and feeling lucky to get a tie. “We just got tired. Mindset, character and mentality saw us through tonight,” said Thorns head coach Mark Parsons after the game.
Forget finishing strong: the Thorns started the game pretty beaten up. Earlier in the week the club announced that Angela Salem’s injury from last game was an ACL tear, and would keep her out for the rest of the season. Emily Menges picked up an unspecified thigh injury midweek so did not travel with the team. With Dagny Brynjarsdottir away on international duty for some friendlies with Iceland in addition to all of their World Cup absences, the Thorns had to dig deep into their team’s depth to come up with a traveling team. Only five players made the bench. Parsons noted the team’s relative professional inexperience, saying “we had five or six people who haven’t played 90 minutes [at an NWSL level] (...) to be able to come and work hard, be resilient and not give up big chances against a good team is great”.
Madison Pogarch came into the team for her first game as a starter as a right wingback, and Kelli Hubly made her season debut as a centerback, with Gabby Seiler moving into midfield. Celeste Boureille, who had been kept out of the team by Salem in the past two games, returned to the starting lineup.
Simone Charley nearly got the Thorns off to a flyer in the 5th minute when she picked centerback Kaleigh Kurtz’s pocket after she tripped up receiving a pass, but Cari Roccaro was able to get back in time to make a tackle to prevent the shot. Charley was a menace on the backline for much of the opening stages, picking off a stray pass again in the 24th minute to earn the Thorns some real estate.
Purce opened the scoring in the 26th minute after a really simple ball over the top from Boureille followed by an incredible volley finish for her fourth goal in three games. Samantha Leshnak played out a goal kick into midfield and after some pinball Boureille was able to send a high ball past the Courage defense, still out of shape, to register her first professional assist. Purce timed her run to perfection in between the Courage center backs, Leshnak came out to challenge and Purce took the bouncing ball on the volley with the outside of her right foot past her to find the empty net.
North Carolina were getting good opportunities but largely failing to convert them into shots on goal: Lynn Williams was getting forced into wide positions and doing good work against the Thorns wide defenders, but having her outside of the box meant that Kristen Hamilton and Leah Pruitt were the most frequent targets in the box. The Courage nearly got the opener in the 10th minute after Williams teed up Hamilton for a shot at the top of the box that just skewed wide. Jaelene Hinkle was probably their most productive playmaker, dropping into midfield and Hinkle split the Thorns defense with a through ball in the 20th minute after cutting inside with the ball at her feet. Pruitt’s touch took was way too hard and took her out of the play.
Purce and Charley continued to be a threat on the break, and Purce could have had another in the 38th minute after a cushioned header from Charley put her through on goal, but Leshnak came up big to put a hand on it and force it wide.
Paul Riley shuffled the deck at halftime, putting on Julia Spetsmark for Ryan Williams. This pushed Merritt Mathias back to right back from midfield and put essentially four up top for Carolina. The Courage consequently came out like a house on fire, ramping up their pressure up the field and pinning the Thorns in their own half. Leah Pruitt nearly drew the Courage level in the 47th minute after a stray touch from Katherine Reynolds put her in on goal, but she shot early and sent it over the bar. Spetsmark put a header on frame from a Williams cross in the 52nd, but it was an easy one for Eckerstrom to collect.
Carolina’s eventual equalizer in the 58th minute required something spectacular. Spetsmark got on the end of a long ball from Merritt Mathias who was able to shrug off a challenge from Reynolds and get a looping volley with both feet off the ground over the top of Eckerstrom.
Spetsmark stayed dangerous: she hit the bar in the 65th minute with a rifled shot hit as she was falling to the ground at the top of the box, The Thorns looked to be just hanging on, with North Carolina living in the Thorns half. The Courage had seven shots in the first 25 minutes of the second half alone, and would finish the half with 17 shots.
As on top of the game that Carolina got in the second half, Parsons seemed prepared for it, shifting more players onto the back line to deal with what he expected the Courage attack to be. “We forced them back to what they used to be,” he said. “They used to be a team that just wanted to go wide and cross it, and that’s a team that we’re ok with playing against.” The Courage would finish the match with 37 crosses from open play, and only succeeded on three of them.
Emily Ogle came on for Pogarch to make her professional debut in the 72nd minute, pushing Seiler onto the backline and shifting to Purce as the lone striker as the Thorns looked to see out the game with a highly defensive shape. Defensively the Thorns looked significantly better (the Courage wouldn’t register a shot on goal after the 66th minute) and largely prevented the barrage of shots from rolling in but running breaks they looked exhausted, and they couldn’t punish the Courage for pushing nearly their entire team upfield. Purce in particular, coming back from a recent injury, looked totally wiped out, and came up limping once or twice after a break. Parsons after the game said of Purce, “For the last five, you’d never keep a player on the pitch the way the (Midge Purce) looked. We had no subs left, and it just got to the point where we told her to stop running. Stop running. Don’t get hurt for the next game, that’s the number one priority.” Marissa Everett came on for Hubly, who pulled up with some muscle issues, in the 84th minute and provided some effective running out right, but largely found it hard to contribute as Carolina continued to pump balls into the box that, for the most part, Eckerstrom was able to grab comfortably.
Spetsmark nearly got the winner in the 86th minute, firing over from close range, and she wanted a penalty in the last minute of stoppage time, but it wasn’t forthcoming, and the Thorns were able, improbably, to escape with a point.