After everything that’s happened in the league, after all the ups and downs of this season, after the tribulations the Thorns have gone through to get here, we’re getting a repeat. The Portland Thorns and the North Carolina Courage will meet in the NWSL final for the second year in a row.
This one won’t be a rerun though: both this Courage team and this Thorns team have risen up a level from last year. The Courage, of course, are a historic regular season team, losing only once and setting the record for points in an NWSL season. The Thorns, meanwhile, slowly made themselves better as individuals and as a team over the course of a long season in which it looked at times as though they might not put it all together. Portland are peaking at the right time. Tobin Heath has turned herself into a goalscorer and Lindsey Horan pulls the strings from deep in a way that she hasn’t done any time before in her career. Caitlin Foord is finding her form quickly after a long injury layoff and Meghan Klingenberg has put together some of her best defensive work in years in recent games. And of course, the Thorns are playing in an NWSL final at home for the first time ever.
Projected Starting XI
Only one change is projected for the Thorns: after Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic’s excellent defensive performance off the bench, the likelihood of her starting in the final went up. Crnogorcevic provides cover to lighten Ellie Carpenter’s workload and allow her to sprint forward with less to worry about. Midge Purce works best in space and when the game gets stretched, which makes her a more sensible sub for later in the game.
Scouting the Opposition
The Courage put in what was by their own admission their worst game of the season in their 2-0 semifinal win against the Chicago Red Stars. The absence of McCall Zerboni, out with a season-ending elbow injury picked up in a US friendly against Chile, is a huge loss for their midfield defense. It doesn’t make them a poor midfield, though: Crystal Dunn, Denise O’Sullivan, Debinha, and Sam Mewis are all incredibly dangerous at creating opportunities out of nothing. Lynn Williams and Jess McDonald are some of the fastest and craftiest forwards in the business, and they’ll be looking to wear the Thorns down by making them chase long balls all day. Abbys Erceg and Dalhkemper are both incredible centerbacks when they can keep the play in front of them, which is most of the time.
Everything hinges on the Thorns’ ability to break the first line of North Carolina pressure. Jasmyne Spencer did an effective job against Lindsay Horan for the first half of the semifinal, and Crystal Dunn is a better player than her. Dunn created the first goal against the Chicago Red Stars against the run of play when she picked Vanessa DiBernardo’s pocket high up the field. If the Thorns can escape the first traps set, they’ll be in a good position to great attacking opportunities from there. The Red Stars, despite outplaying the Courage for much of the game, blew the chances they had. The Thorns offense thrives off efficient opportunities, and will very much need to do so on Saturday, lest they find themselves behind to another Sam Mewis wonderstrike from nothing.