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Storylines: Portland Thorns vs North Carolina Courage

The NWSL top two go into their final regular season matchup jockeying for pole position in the race for the shield.

Fair to say last weekend’s game against the Utah Royals didn’t go according to plan.

The Thorns somehow put together some of their biggest statistical attacking performance of the year in terms of pure shooting attempts but failed to score and were scored on by a wonderful header from Becky Sauerbrunn.

The Courage on the other hand did get out of New Jersey with three points against Sky Blue FC, but only just: they were held to no shots on target in the first half and only got the 2-1 win with the help of a first minute own goal.

The Courage are two points behind the Thorns in the table with two games in hand: should the Thorns win, the Courage can still win the shield if they win out. The Thorns are not completely out of the picture should they fail to gain all three points, but would require circumstances to fall their way in either case.

Starting XI

With Emily Sonnett getting sent off away at Utah, the Thorns need someone to step in at centerback. Fortunately the club is well positioned in this part of the field and have a few options there. Katherine Reynolds is most likely to be called on, and would be a steady hand organizationally. She can get burnt in a flat out race, however, so the club could always throw a curveball and put in Elizabeth Ball instead. Ball’s reaction time defensively is very quick and she’s handled tough assignments well this year.

Meanwhile, options in midfield have not improved: both Andressinha and Celeste Boureille have yet to be cleared from the injury report, so no changes will be forthcoming there.

Gameplan

The games this year between North Carolina and the Thorns have been very different, but very close. The most recent 2-1 win for the Thorns required two own goals from the Courage to get the team over the line and left the team feeling somewhat incomplete, adding to the already high motivation around any game at this point in the season. Expect an intense encounter.

One of the lingering issues that Portland have been dealing with this year is persistently allowing teams to hang around by failing to clear in the defensive phase. It doesn’t happen very often but it’s happened enough that teams have snuck results and goals that they shouldn’t have. The urgency in the squad is certain to go up in this period: much depends on how high a level their defending can reach in midfield.

The midfield battle is always a high priority in this matchup: Sam Mewis has performed extremely strongly in their past matchups and she’s sure to put Horan and Brynjarsdottir under pressure in possession. The Thorns will be wanting to move quickly to escape their traps in midfield. The team has been at their best when they’ve been able to nail their one-touch passes and runs with precision, and now is an essential time to rediscover that precision.