What a great season out of our North Carolina Courage. From the first game of the season they sat effectively at the top of the standings for the entirety of the NWSL season (although they technically fell to second for a few days when Chicago overtook them in points after the Courage game was postponed due to inclement weather). The transplanted team from upstate New York took hold and rooted well in the Southern sun, capping off their season with the biggest crowd of the season (over 10,000 fans) in their home playoff win against the Chicago Red Stars. Now they set their sights on something no team has done in the history of the NWSL; win the championship from the #1 seed.
The Thorns ended the 2016 season at the top of the standings and faced off against the Western New York Flash (now the Courage) in the semifinal match in Portland. That game was an absolute barn-burner, with the Flash finally overtaking the Thorns in overtime with a 4-3 final scoreline. The Thorns had to relive their defeat in a different way this season, when the Courage hosted the Thorns for their home opener and won on a Debinha header in the 82nd minute, much to the delight of the newly minted Courage fans. Portland had their revenge, though, with the Thorns earning their own 1-0 victory in Portland later in the season.
The Courage and Thorns, without a doubt, were the best two teams throughout the season, and they both won with the same formula of excellent goalkeeping, calculated defense, and blistering counterattacks. Both teams earned shutout records this season, with the Courage accruing a record 12 team shutouts and Adrianna Franch earning a record 11 shutouts of her own, this game does not project to be a high scoring affair despite the fact that both teams have excellent offensive prowess.
To the casual fan, this matchup definitely has a David vs Goliath feel. The Thorns are effectively a national team unto themselves. Lindsey Horan, Tobin Heath, Meghan Klingenberg and Allie Long are all household names from the USWNT, while Amandine Henry hails from the French national team (4rd best in the world), Christine Sinclair plays for Canada (5th in the world), Hayley Raso and Ashleigh Sykes for Australia (6th), Nadia Nadim for Denmark (recent EURO runners up), and Dagny Brynjarsdottir from Iceland. Thus, 10 of the 22 players on the Thorns routinely represent their home nations on the world stage. Top it off with a group of defenders and a goalkeeper that have all participated in the USWNT camp at one point or another and you have a clear recipe for success. Not hard to see why, despite the Courage accruing the better regular season record, most of the money would be put down on a Thorns victory.
Our Courage have a very different pedigree. Before 2017, only Lynn Williams and Sam Mewis were ever national team members. Jess McDonald made a brief appearance for one camp and then never got another call. Instead, the Courage have cultivated a team mentality to work hard and win games in a scrappy fashion that is extremely pleasing to watch. The Courage have 4 players who are potentially going to be on USWNT contracts in Williams, Dahlkemper, Mewis and Smith, but that is still far from certain. The Courage internationals are also of a different breed than the Thorns. Rather than drawing in talent from all of the best countries around the world, the Courage utilize Abby Erceg (who no longer plays for 19th ranked New Zealand) and Denise O’Sullivan (33rd ranked Ireland) perfectly. Debinha, who suffered a season ending injury against Chicago plays for 9th-ranked Brazil.
The final aspect of this rivalry revolves entirely around Paul Riley. Riley coached Portland in the 2014 and 2015 seasons, but never had much success with the team, despite the star-studded roster. In 2016 he left for Western New York and proceeded to beat his old team in the semifinals of the 2016 playoffs. Paul Riley was ejected from that game for running into the 4th official during the first half of the game, and I’m sure there is nothing he’d rather have than another victory over his old team.
The Final Game
In 2016 these two teams met as the top two scoring teams in the NWSL, but this season they will meet as the top two defensive teams in the league. Portland and North Carolina were the only two teams to allow fewer than 1 goal per game this season, and both teams were in the good-but-not-great category in terms of scoring. Both teams have excellent midfield units, and the battle between Horan and Mewis will be fascinating to watch.
Honestly, both teams are pretty much equal in every aspect of their play. It’s hard to determine which side will come away on top in any third of the field on paper. The Thorns are more technically proficient in the midfield, but the Courage definitely have more pace and explosion. Hayley Raso and Lynn Williams both have the pace to punish their opposing defenses by getting in behind, and they are both backed up by proficient midfield attackers. The outside backs on both teams move in to the attacking third to provide service, but the Courage probably have a slight advantage there.
The biggest difference in advantage will probably be the venue. With this game being played in Orlando, neither team will be playing at home. Between the two, the Courage absolutely had the better away record 7-4-1 compared to the 4-4-4 that the Thorns recorded on the season. The Courage were the only team in the league to have more wins than losses on the road this season, so unless everyone in Orlando comes out in favor of Portland – the team that just beat the Pride in the semifinals – the Courage should have an away-field-advantage for this contest.