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NWSL championship: Portland Thorns grit out 1-0 win over North Carolina Courage

It was a messy, rough grind of a game.

Amy Pearson

Portland Thorns starting XI: Adrianna Franch, Kat Reynolds, Emily Sonnett, Emily Menges, Meghan Klingenberg, Amandine Henry, Lindsey Horan, Ashleigh Sykes, Christine Sinclair, Tobin Heath, Hayley Raso

North Carolina Courage starting XI: Katelyn Rowland, Abby Dahlkemper, Abby Erceg, Jaelene Hinkle, Taylor Smith, McCall Zerboni, Sam Mewis, Denise O’Sullivan, Kristen Hamilton, Ashley Hatch, Lynn Williams

It was a rough start for the North Carolina Courage as they faced off against the Portland Thorns on a bright, humid day in Orlando. Not three minutes in, Taylor Smith got bulldozed by Tobin Heath, resulting in some kind of right arm injury. Smith did her best to play on, but it was evident her arm would no longer function properly, and she had to come off in the 11’. Kristen Hamilton dropped into the back line for Smith and NC subbed on Makenzy Doniak up front. No card was given.

The Thorns began to grab up the midfield, at one point trying to release Hayley Raso into the box, but she was defended well by Abby Erceg. Sam Mewis tried to respond with a statement shot in the 14’, putting in a ball from nearly the center circle as she spotted Franch off her line, but the shot went off the crossbar. Once again the Thorns tried to establish a rhythm through the midfield, using Sinclair and Horan to try and set the tempo for Heath and Raso.

North Carolina mostly absorbed the pressure, often looking to disrupt Portland and then spring Lynn Williams, but Williams was constantly under pressure from at least two center defenders at all times as Portland played with five on defense, allowing Sykes to push up on the right as necessary.

The teams pushed cagily at each other, both of them looking fairly tight, resulting in some sloppy play and turnovers. NC once again had a frightening chance though, with Denise O’Sullivan snapping a quick shot off a ball bouncing out from a corner kick. Franch had to be quick to dive onto the shot and smother it with plenty of NC players in the box ready to pounce.

Misfortune struck again for the Courage in the 37’ as Kristen Hamilton went down with what looked like a groin injury. She was forced to sub off for Jess McDonald, making that two substitutions forced on NC in the first half.

Portland continued to physically hack at North Carolina, a symptom perhaps of the ref’s seeming lax enforcement of the rules, until finally the ref issued a yellow card on Heath in the 41’, and then another on Hayley Raso in stoppage for a bad challenge on Makenzy Doniak. NC began responding in kind, although by the time tempers really started flaring, the ref was blessedly calling time and things ended 0-0 in the first half.

Teams came out in the second half still looking a bit tight, but Lindsey Horan broke the deadlock almost right away in the 50’ as Sonnett put a ball in for Horan, who had the time and space to bury it right in front of net and make it 1-0. Portland switched it up shortly after, putting in Dagny Brynjarsdottir for Ashleigh Sykes in the 54’ and having her continue to work up and down the right side.

North Carolina responded well, taking over the tempo of the midfield and probing at Portland’s defensive third with jabs here and there while Portland tried to keep pushing them out. It took the Thorns about another 10 minutes to break out again and return some pressure, though they still looked quite tense, goal notwithstanding. They made their next sub in the 69’ with Hayley Raso coming off for Nadia Nadim.

Things got weird in the 71’ as Katelyn Rowland came out of her box in the 71’ and couldn’t manage to collect the ball within the 18, leaving her caught using her feet outside of the box while Portland scrambled around her trying to score on an empty net. Nothing came of it though, which is perhaps emblematic of the game as a whole: a slightly confusing mess that ends in unsatisfactory manner.

The rest of the game was pretty much the same. NC made their final sub in the 97’ with Stephanie Ochs on for O’Sullivan, and Portland used up some stoppage subbing on Allie Long for Henry. Stoppage stretched on for interminable minutes, North Carolina frantically throwing balls and numbers into the box, but Portland held on until full time, ultimately taking the championship on Horan’s lone goal.

It was an ugly, chippy beast of a final, hardly an advertisement for the league, but one suspects that hardly matters to Portland, who now add a second star above their crest.

“We knew it was going to be a battle all night long, that’s often how finals are. They’re not normally the prettiest of games,” said Thorns captain Christine Sinclair after the game.

“I thought we were the better team for a good 75, 80 minutes of it,” said Courage head coach Paul Riley. “I thought it was just a really gutty performance and you don’t always get your just reward. I think we were a little bit unlucky in the end. But we move on.”

When asked about the physicality of the game and how it might have changed had Tobin Heath gotten a yellow for her very early challenge, McCall Zerboni induced a laugh in the media room as she closed her eyes for effect, as though asking for forbearance. “You know the rules of the game are as such you want the referee to get in control of the game and hold on to the game,” she said. “That’s what they’re there for. Otherwise we’d take them out and just be balls to the wall. I thought she did her job. I thought some things could have been changed and gotten control of the game earlier with maybe a couple of cards shown. I thought there was a couple tackles that maybe could have been a red card honestly. It was clear what their game plan was.”

“It always hurts when the other team’s lifting the trophy,” said Riley. “Sometimes you wish you just were poorer on the day and you got beat three-nothing, but I was so happy with the performance that I feel fulfilled, I have to be honest with you.”

Lindsey Horan perhaps best summed up the grind that was holding off North Carolina all through the second half with a succinct “I’m glad that’s over.”

“We’re proud to have been a great attacking team,” said Thorns head coach Mark Parsons. “We didn’t get to show that as much today. We’re proud to be a very good hardworking defensive team and it’s won us a championship.”