In front of an NWSL record crowd and Providence Park sellout, the Thorns won 2-1 to climb once again to the top of an NWSL table that they had been previously headed away from. An improbable game after a rough week saw the Thorns come from one goal down to beat the North Carolina on the strength of two Courage own goals.
The Thorns sprung a few big lineup changes after playing a midweek fixture up in Tacoma: Caitlin Foord started on the wing, Dagny Brynjarsdottir came in for Gabby Seiler and Katherine Reynolds played her first game at left back for the club. Most notably, Simone Charley returned to the starting lineup for the first time since the World Cup season.
Thorns coach Mark Parsons acknowledged that the changes were due to the demanding schedule of the past week, saying: “We made the changes that we made today purely about freshening things up because of the demand of the last two games. We emptied the tank against Tacoma and not just physically, mentally and emotionally and then you play in this high energy, playing at home in front of Courage, it’s was going to be a demanding game.” As for Brynjarsdottir, Parsons said, “We had to have some more height to deal with set pieces and long throws today. Gabby’s excellent in the air but you know, two-feet difference sometimes makes a difference with [Samantha] Mewis, and [Jessica] McDonald and [Abby] Erceg coming down for set pieces.”
Unfortunately for the gameplan it was with their feet that North Carolina had their best chances in the first half. The Courage totally dominated the opening 15 minutes of the game. Lynn Williams got sent through on goal and was denied a shot by a late intervention from Emily Sonnett in only the 2nd minute, but it wouldn’t be long before they had a break through: indeed, it took just four minutes for them to find the back of the net. Kristen Hamilton got sent through around the right side of the Thorns defense and crossed it in. Emily Menges couldn’t get much power behind her attempt to head away, no one else in Thorns defense could clear and Crystal Dunn had a more or less free shot from inside the six yard box.
The Thorns looked shellshocked early and had a tough time getting on the ball. Once they settled into the game set pieces and counterattacks provided their best early opportunities: Tobin Heath delivered a free kick in the 12th minute that flashed in front of Steph Labbe’s net and had to be sent out for a corner. Emily Sonnett found herself leading a fast break after winning the ball on the midfield line
Caitlin Foord earned a yellow card in the 19th minute for pulling Sam Mewis’ shirt on the break and could have gotten a second shortly after after chasing down Merritt Mathias on a long ball. Mewis in particular looked impressive early on in the game from her perch in midfield.
The Thorns grew into the game around the 30th minute, especially down their right side. Elizabeth Ball was allowed a lot of time in possession and was able to combine with her teammates: Charley was able to get free a few times on the ball against Jaelene Hinkle and serve crosses in to good effect. Horan had an opportunity to draw the Thorns level in the 29th minute from a header: Elizabeth Ball served in an excellent cross that Labbe swung and missed at, leaving Horan with a free header and an open net. She could only direct her header into the turf wide left.
North Carolina still pushed for more. Crystal Dunn fired a shot headed for the top corner off a recycled ball from a corner that Adrianna Franch had to summon all her powers to dig out. in the 41st minute. Heath served in a cross that sent Abby Erceg colliding with her own goalie in the 44th minute and could have resulted in a Courage own goal.
At halftime Charley and Foord were replaced by Hayley Raso and Midge Purce. The Thorns took the fresh injection of energy and ran with it, immediately working Heath more into attacks and looking more effective. Heath and Purce combined for a one-two that sent Heath running directly at Labbe, but she couldn’t beat her one-on-one.
Brynjarsdottir, who had looked a bit overwhelmed like the rest of the team early on, grew into the game and ended up stepping in front of several Courage passes to start quick counterattacks. Asked if she feels like she’s back to her best after the game, Brynjarsdottir demurred: “I would say I’m getting closer definitely. I think I’ve got my fitness back, but maybe I can sharpen up a little bit there and here in the attack, but defensively I think I’m pretty there. Maybe I need one or two more percent”.
The Thorns would eventually go ahead on an own goal in the 54th minute. Elizabeth Ball sent in another impressive cross that totally vexed the Courage defense. “Crossing isn’t really something that I’ve been used to in the past, but this season I’ve really been working on it,” Ball said after the game. “Mark [Parsons] told me at halftime, hey, let’s get more crosses in, and I’m glad we made it work”. Labbe collided with Merritt Mathias and flailed at the ball, pushing it directly into her own net. The Courage initially looked like they wanted a foul, but in truth Purce, the closest Thorn was a foot away from play, so it stood.
Portland had a goal waved off just a few minutes later: Sinclair played in Heath down the right whose cross found Horan, who just mistimed her run, so Purce’s putback counted for nothing. Raso nearly scored in the 74th minute after getting put through on goal by Heath, but couldn’t get clean contact on her shot because of Hinkle intervening at the last second. Her weak shot still forced Labbe into a diving save.
Improbably, when the Thorns did go ahead, it was off yet another own goal. In the 82nd minute Sinclair picked off a lazy back pass and sent in a cross that ricocheted off Dalhkemper, back off Abby Erceg and past the outstretched arms of Labbe.
AD Franch pulled the Thorns out of the fire a few times down the stretch of the game, making impressive stops on Kristen Hamilton and Crystal Dunn, and it was appropriate that the game should end with her picking a cross out of the air. Her 10 saves on the day made for a single game record for her and tied a club record. Franch was sanguine but honest about the situation after the game, saying: “We still made mistakes. I still made mistakes. So we look at those mistakes and that’s what we continue to grow on. After every game we go back and look at all the mistakes and at the end of the day, I would rather make the mistakes now than at the end of the year”.