The Portland Thorns beat up the North Carolina Courage physically throughout the first half, and then beat them on the scoreboard, 1-0, on a Lindsey Horan strike in the second half. In many respects North Carolina was the better side in a sloppy and chippy match but the Courage couldn’t break down the Thorns’ defense and that made all the difference in the end.
The regular season Supporters’ Shield winners have still never won the NWSL title and the Courage failed to win back-to-back championships after doing it as the Western New York Flash in 2016. It was the Thorns capturing their second NWSL title — first since 2013 — in front of 8,124 at Orlando City Stadium. Portland joins FC Kansas City as the only NWSL franchises with two championships.
North Carolina was dealt an early blow just two minutes in, when USWNT defender and Courage right back Taylor Smith suffered a hard foul from Tobin Heath. Heath really should have been booked for the challenge but Danielle Chesky opted to keep her card in her pocket.
Smith was sidelined for about four minutes before coming back on. However, she continued running with her right arm held up against her chest in obvious discomfort and went down again at 11’ and was subbed out for Makenzy Doniak a minute later. Kristen Hamilton slid from midfield to right back and Doniak was inserted into the midfield.
The opening minutes of the match were mostly played between the boxes with little real attack as the teams felt each other out. The best opportunity came from North Carolina’s Sam Mewis, who tried to beat Thorns goalkeeper Adrianna Franch’s high positioning with a blast from the center circle that crashed off the crossbar in the 14th minute.
Ashley Hatch got the second shot attempt of the game at the 21-minute mark, nodding a corner kick cross off target for the Courage. In the 33rd minute, a long ball in for Williams but her attempt on the half volley was off frame.
North Carolina finally got the game’s first shot on target in the 35th minute off another corner service. McCall Zerboni sent in the cross that was knocked out of the area to Denise O’Sullivan, who cracked a shot on target that forced a diving stop from Franch.
The Thorns continued to make rash and violent challenges throughout the first half. Heath alone sent two players off early with injuries, following her destruction of Smith early with a foul on Hamilton. She could not continue and Jessica McDonald came on for North Carolina. Heath was finally booked after her fourth foul of the opening period at the 41-minute mark. Hayley Raso should probably have been booked in the 42nd minute for a hard foul on Zerboni and she was eventually shown a yellow card in first-half stoppage for a borderline red card foul.
The teams went into the locker room scoreless at the break, with the Courage leading in shots, 5-1. Lindsey Horan’s attempt from outside the box was well over the bar for Portland’s only shot attempt of the first half. Possession was nearly even, with the Thorns holding a slight edge, 52%-48%. Neither team passed well, as North Carolina passed at just a 58% clip, which was still better than Portland’s 56%.
With most of the rough fouls coming from the Thorns, it’s ironic that Portland opened the scoring on a set piece. Emily Sonnett launched a free kick from near midfield that fell in the box perfectly for Horan, who blasted it home through Katelyn Rowland to make it 1-0.
The final 40 minutes essentially consisted of North Carolina beating their heads against a stubborn Portland defense. Mewis powered a set piece shot over the bar in the 53rd, McDonald headed wide in the 59th, and Williams blasted one right at Franch in the 68th as Carolina looked for an equalizer.
McDonald beat Franch to an aerial ball in the 71st minute but couldn’t beat the Portland keeper and the whistle went anyway as Chesky opted to protect the goalkeeper on the 50/50 ball. Emily Menges made a huge play in the 83rd minute to block a point-blank shot from Williams on what could have been North Carolina’s best opportunity to tie the game. Franch made a couple of fairly easy saves down the stretch and the final whistle finally blew to seal the championship for Portland.
North Carolina out-shot Portland, 16-4 (5-3 on target) and held 52% of the possession for the game (56% in the second half). But it was the Thorns’ defense that was the game’s biggest factor, as the Courage simply couldn’t find a way through.