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Late Raso Strike Enough to Carry Portland

Christine Sinclair celebrates with Hayley Raso after scoring in the Thorns' season opener. (photo courtesy Portland Thorns)

It wasn’t the prettiest game of soccer and nowhere near as exciting as the last time these two teams met at Providence Park, but the Portland Thorns got it done with a late strike from Hayley Raso to take three points off the North Carolina Courage.

Mark Parsons gave Tyler Lussi her first start after an energetic second half in Houston last week, moving Australian forward Ashleigh Sykes out wide in the midfield and placing Allie Long as the holding midfielder. On the other side, Ashley Hatch got the nod over Jess McDonald, lining up alongside Lynn Williams, while McCall Zerboni pushed wide and Debinha slotted into the attacking mid role as Paul Riley moved from the dual-pivot system to more of a diamond midfield.

Reminiscent of last year’s thrilling semifinal, the game started out chippy as Lussi narrowly avoided a caution in the 3rd minute of play when she spun Taylor Smith around in the center of the park. North Carolina started out on the front foot, forcing Adrianna Franch to make a save on Ashley Hatch in the 7th minute, while Portland struggled to build out of pressure.

Franch rose to the opportunity again in the 34th minute when she claimed a dangerous Makenzy Doniak cross that had Hatch lurking at far post. A few minutes later, Williams looked to be on the breakaway when she brought down a misplayed ball from Sykes and got Emily Sonnett to overcommit. However, Sonnett made a fantastic recovery run, ending with a well-timed slide tackle before Williams could get in striking range.

Right before the half, Hatch had another opportunity when Smith blazed past Meghan Klingenberg and sent in a beautiful ball for an unmarked Hatch, whose header went high. The teams went into the locker rooms scoreless, each lacking quality in the final third.

The Thorns gradually took control in the second half, taking advantage from a very quiet game from Samantha Mewis in the Courage midfield to work the ball down the pitch.

Christine Sinclair nearly snuck one in in the 51st minute, controlling the second ball after a corner kick and trying to get it in past a bevy of defenders, but Katelyn Rowland was well positioned and made the save with her feet. Zerboni had a clear shot from distance a few minutes later, but Franch made a diving save to collect the ball that looked to be slightly off target.

In the 69th minute, Christine Sinclair was caught up by Smith, who had already received a yellow for a jersey tug on Raso, just on top of the box. Lindsey Horan collected the loose ball and fired a rocket, but Rowland did just enough to push it into the crossbar.

It looked like a goal was coming for the Thorns, and a minute later, it did. Smith had a poor clearance inside the box, allowing Horan to recycle the ball to Klingenberg. The left back sent it back in and found the head of Raso, who got in front of Jaelene Hinkle to make the play. Rowland got a hand on it but couldn’t stop the path.

Despite the entry of Jess McDonald into the game, the Courage couldn’t find their way back, although the Thorns had a few risky moments as they tried to see out the game, and a few poor giveaways nearly turned things around.

It almost happened for the Courage in the 90th minute. Smith, now playing in a higher position after Stephanie Ochs subbed in, collected the ball at the top of the box and, with space around her, sent in a long-distance shot. Once again, the crossbar rose to the occasion. Franch looked to have gotten a hand on it, but it was ruled a goal kick.

If Chicago beats Sky Blue, they will tie North Carolina on points and take the top spot on the head-to-head tiebreaker. Otherwise, North Carolina will retain first place. Portland moves into third place but could drop back as low as fifth depending on Sky Blue’s and Seattle’s results. North Carolina travels to Kansas City next week, while Portland hosts Washington.

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