ORLANDO, FL — One number provides a big clue to the reason the Portland Thorns and North Carolina Courage will meet in the NWSL Championship tomorrow: 42. That’s how many goals the teams combined to allow over the course of the 24 regular season games this year. They conceded 20 and 22 goals, respectively, while the next closest team was Chicago with 30. The two best defenses in the league are about to meet one last time this year. Defense wins championships, as the saying goes, and tomorrow one will do just that.
The backlines themselves have several similarities. They both play high lines and ask their goalkeepers to come off their lines. They both push their fullbacks into the attack and rely on that width. At the heart of their defenses, both teams have the strongest centerback pairings in the league, and in a curious twist, each pair shares a first name: the Abbys and the Emilys.
THE ABBYS: A NEW FOUNDATION
For Abby Dahlkemper and Abby Erceg, their partnership didn’t begin to blossom until this year, a growth reflected in the Courage’s significantly improved defense.
“I didn’t really build a solid relationship with her last year,” says Erceg of Dahlkemper. “It was kind of broken because I was in and out often.”
While Erceg rotated with Alanna Kennedy in midfield or alongside Dahlkemper in defense last season, this year they have played consistently side by side. The consistency has helped them build trust and chemistry that almost transcends verbal communication.
“The way that she plays is easy for me to read. We work very well together in that sense,” explains Erceg, adding that the only communication she really has to have with Dahlkemper is to tell her she has a man on.
That doesn’t mean, however, that they aren’t vocal. Both Taylor Smith and Jaelene Hinkle, the Courage starting fullbacks, praise their vocal leadership.
“They talk a lot, making sure that we’re in position, so I think it’s great to have that partnership back there that’s so strong,” says Hinkle.
Adds Smith, “They’re just really great leaders.”
And speaking of communication, in order to avoid confusion, they are referred to as Abby (Dahlkemper) and Kiwi (Erceg) on and off the pitch. Kiwi was coined by Paul Riley as a nod to Erceg’s New Zealand home.
The two are an aggressive pair, notes Erceg, sharing a similar style in their physicality and willingness to take on. They also share important roles in offense, with Dahlkemper taking nearly all corner kicks while Erceg is a frequent target in the air.
Dahlkemper credits Erceg with helping her grow into an international-level defender this year. “Kiwi this year has been super helpful in the way she’s just so composed and calm and consistent and just a solid defender. I think I’ve definitely learned so much from her.”
Along with both Hinkle and Smith, whose ability to get high up the pitch depends on the strength of Dahlkemper and Erceg to hold down the fort, goalkeepers Katelyn Rowland and Sabrina D’Angelo praise the pair, saying it makes their job easier.
“We’re incredibly lucky to have the Abbys in front of us and Tay and Jae on the wings to keep everything clean for us,” says D’Angelo. The Canadian keeper was last year’s championship MVP after saving three penalty kicks in the shootout. “They’re just so cool and composed.”
“The confidence, the experience, the organization, it’s gotten so much better throughout every game this year,” says Rowland, who took over the starting spot from D’Angelo midway through the season and is likely to start in the championship. “I trust them.”
THE EMILYS: BUILDING UPON PREVIOUS SUCCESS
“Playing with Emily last year and then continuing into another year, we’re very familiar with each other,” says Sonnett. “This year we became very solid, whether that is getting the right principles down, the right communication down so we can allow the fullbacks to go, whether we’re holding a mid back to allow them to go … I think we’ve found a very good flow in how we play to make us successful.”
Echoes Menges, “We’ve definitely grown in our relationship.”
Katherine Reynolds, who lines up at right back for the second year in a row next to Sonnett, agrees. “We’ve had a couple of years, for the most part, to play together and develop that consistency. We all have great chemistry and have each other’s back.”
Sonnett, who of the two is more likely to push up the pitch while her partner Menges stays home, is only in her second season of professional play, though she does have a year of time with the USWNT under her belt. Despite her relative inexperience, that doesn’t mean that Menges, who is finishing her fourth year, can’t learn from her.
“I’ve definitely learned a lot from her in terms of defending,” Menges says. “There’s too many things to name.”
All four of the starting defenders returned from last year’s Shield-winning defense, although Reynolds entered the season on an injury and didn’t rejoin the team until halfway through this season. Her insertion is what propelled the Thorns to another level, but in the meantime it was Sonnett and Menges keeping things together.
“It’s been a journey,” explains Menges. ”We have a lot of things that we do defensively that are very black and white. We’re all on the same page and we’ve been training that for two years. Our defense now has been built off last year’s success. If you put anybody else in the backline with us, they’d know exactly what they’d have to do.”
On the outside, Reynolds knows her centerbacks have it covered. “They’re amazing defenders and I trust them completely. If something goes wrong, they’re going to be there to make the big block.”
Both the Thorns and the Courage possess plenty of firepower. With the fullbacks so crucial to their attacks, each team will rely on the central defenders to put out fires across their defensive half and relieve pressure from the goalkeeper. At the end of the day, sometimes success is a simple as keeping the ball out of your net.
As Meghan Klingenberg, the fourth member of Portland’s backline, explains, “We know that we need to score goals to win but if we can keep it at zero, we’ll always have a chance.”