The NWSL Challenge Cup quarterfinals will start with the same match that kicked off the tournament, the Portland Thorns versus the North Carolina Courage. The Courage enter the knockout rounds as the top seed having scored a tournament-best seven goals and allowing only one.
The one team to score against the Courage was the Portland Thorns, a team that has struggled to put the ball in the back of the net and lacked creativity and decisiveness in the final third.
The Right Side
In the first match of the NWSL Challenge Cup, the Thorns lost to the North Carolina Courage 2-1 after Lynn Williams scored in stoppage time. Both of the Courage goals came from balls into the box from the right side of the field. This was a bit of foreshadowing for the rest of the tournament. The majority of the goals scored by the Courage have come from the right-hand side.
After the Thorns’ first match against North Carolina, and after viewing the Courage’s other matches, Portland will be aware that most of the goals come from this dominant flank and the wingbacks and centerbacks will have to be wary of the threat.
The Washington Spirit opened the tournament very well and went into the North Carolina match trying upset the Courage. Washington usually sets up in a 4-3-3 but elected to sit in a 4-4-2 to combat the Courage’s box midfield. Coach Richie Burke said that he wished they didn’t stray from their identity and had stuck with the 4-3-3.
In the Courage’s final group stage match, they were guaranteed the number one seed regardless of the result. In true North Carolina fashion though, they fielded one of their strongest elevens. Sky Blue FC looked to play to their strengths and stuck to their identity of building out of the back and dictating the tempo in a 4-3-3.
In the seventh minute, the ball bounced around the box after a corner and North Carolina’s Samantha Mewis pounced and slotted it into the back of the net. The Courage smelled blood in the water and immediately started pressing aggressively to win the ball high and put the game to bed. But Sky Blue was able to recover well. They successfully broke the first line of North Carolina’s press and grew into the game.
Sky Blue did well and was controlling possession but struggled to create in the final third. In the 70th minute Mewis played a ball down the right flank to Williams who squared the ball for Crystal Dunn, who calmly put the ball in the back of the net.
Sky Blue looked like the most confident team to play the Courage so far and if they were more creative in attack really could have challenged North Carolina.
For the Thorns to be successful in this quarterfinal matchup they need to stick to their identity and not make the mistake the Spirit did. This does not mean coach Mark Parsons should not make tactical adjustments to deal with the Courage. It means they should stick to their high-pressing, possession-based style and not change formations or their style in an attempt to stifle the Courage.
The Courage’s Counter-press
One of the ways the Courage are able to create so many dangerous opportunities is their counter-press. When they lose the ball, or the opposing team attempts to build out of the back, the Courage’s box midfield and forwards try to force the opponents wide. After the ball goes wide, North Carolina uses the touchline as an extra player and presses aggressively with the forwards and the midfielders.
Their press is suffocating and can cause a lot of turnovers, but Sky Blue showed that quality on the ball can allow a team to play through the press with quick combination play or by switching the point of the attack. If the Thorns can successfully break the first line of the press, there is a lot of space to exploit in the central areas because the midfielders have overloaded on one flank to press the ball carrier. Midfielders Lindsey Horan (if fit to play) and Rocky Rodriguez’s ability on the ball will be crucial in breaking the press along with the hold-up and link-up play of Christine Sinclair.
Limiting Carolina’s Wingbacks
Another area of vulnerability for North Carolina is the space behind their wingbacks. Getting fullbacks Jaelene Daniels and Addisyn Merrick involved in the attack is a key part of coach Paul Riley’s offense. Because they get forward so often, they often help in the counter-press because they have not had the opportunity to get back in position immediately after the ball is turned over. When the fullbacks press high they leave a lot of space behind them. Smart off the ball runs and good balls over the top, after breaking the initial press, can really unlock the defense and give Portland’s forwards a lot of space to run into.
The Thorns could also limit the offensive impact of Daniels and Merrick with their press. One of the brightest spots throughout the tournament for Portland has been their aggressive defensive pressure. If Portland can possess the ball well and pin North Carolina back at times, this, combined with defensive pressure, could suffocate the fullbacks forcing them to stay back defensively while limiting dangerous service from Daniels that has hurt the Courage’s opponents.
Daniels is dangerous when she goes forward in the attack, but she can also make you pay in her own half. Her curling balls behind defenders and floated passes over the backline have released Williams for a number of good goalscoring opportunities.
Opportunities for the Thorns
When the Courage attack, the two midfielders at the top of the box midfield sometimes drift into the front line. Sky Blue were able to pressure Mewis and Denise O’Sullivan and force some cheap giveaways that allowed them to run at centerbacks Abby Dahlkemper and Abby Erceg. But if the Thorns are to capitalize on these giveaways they must attack quickly because both midfielders were able to recover quickly and slow the counterattacks.
The North Carolina midfield can become even more spacious when the Courage possess the ball in the opponent’s half. When the Courage have a lot of time on the ball Mewis and O’Sullivan take turns making deep midfield runs in behind. This is a great offensive weapon for Riley’s team because it can often result in an unmarked player in the box or cause confusion for the centerbacks. If they lose the ball when the runs are being made, they can leave themselves extremely vulnerable on the counter.
The Thorns have left a lot to be desired in front of goal. They have created decent opportunities but have struggled with decisiveness. They are most dangerous on set-pieces and at moments when Horan can get in the box. Both goals have come from these positions. One being a diving header from Horan and another was a Horan header off the post and redirected by Simone Charley. In fact, Horan had multiple headed opportunities against the Courage. Portland could punish the Courage if Sinclair and Horan can get their heads to a few set-pieces
North Carolina can hurt you in a lot of ways. They can pass through you, over you and around you and they have a variety of players who are dangerous in front of goal. But they are by no means perfect and if Parsons and the Thorns can execute their game plan and Portland finds its shooting boots, they could upset the back-to-back champs.
The first quarterfinal of the NWSL Challenge Cup between North Carolina and Portland will be available on CBS All Access and will kick off on Friday at 9:30 am (PT).