North Carolina Courage (16-7-1, 49 pts) vs Portland Thorns FC (14-5-5)
Saturday, 4:30 p.m. EDT, Orlando City Stadium
All-time series: Thorns lead, 6-3-3 (plus 1-1-0 playoffs)
2017 in North Carolina: April 22, 1-0 Courage
2017 in Portland: July 15, 1-0 Thorns
22 weeks. 120 regular season games plus two semifinals. It all comes down to this. #1 versus #2. Defending champions and current Shield holders versus last year’s Shield winner. The North Carolina Courage versus the Portland Thorns. While neither semifinal was a classic, two teams got the job done, and they’re ready to put it all on the line one more time to finish the season on top and take home the ultimate prize: the 2017 NWSL Championship.
If you follow the line of thinking that North Carolina is simply the Western New York Flash in a new kit (which I do), then this game is a repeat of the first-ever NWSL championship in 2013, which the Thorns won 2-0 over the Flash. Allie Long, Tobin Heath, and Christine Sinclair are the only ones who remain from that championship team, while McCall Zerboni is the only 2013 Flash player on the Courage roster. Adrianna Franch and Katherine Reynolds find themselves on the other side, having been with the Flash in 2013 and are now with the Thorns. However, a lot has changed since then besides the rosters.
The Courage didn’t look their best against Chicago and waited until the 90th minute to score the lone goal, and even that took a lucky deflection off Julie Ertz. However, they dominated the match, spending long periods in their attacking half and limiting the Red Stars to one shot on goal. They’ll need more lethal finishing to get past a solid Thorns defense that also limited Orlando to one shot on goal. Crucial to that will be Lynn Williams, who isn’t quite as effective when paired with Ashley Hatch as she is when next to Jess McDonald. They also want to make sure their defense doesn’t get caught up the pitch. While Taylor Smith and Jaelene Hinkle got up field at will, relying on their recovery speed plus their centerbacks to cover, Portland uses the flanks much more effectively than Chicago and will likely try to exploit that space with Tobin Heath and Ashleigh Sykes. Finally, they need Samantha Mewis to come up big in midfield. She is key to the Courage, and when her passes are sloppy as they were against Chicago, Portland will jump all over it.
Portland’s game against Orlando was a great example of how to see out a win: score early, weather the storm, and score late to seal the deal. They have momentum as well as a fully healthy Tobin Heath on their side, which is a boost to both their mental and actual games. One big change from last week is needed to get past the Courage: the long stretch where they took their foot off the gas and let Orlando control the match. Their defense is the best in the league and capable (as they proved) of withstanding it, but North Carolina is at their best when allowed to press. Take the ability to press away from them, and the Thorns’ chances will improve. That happens in the midfield, where you can expect a physical game. Lindsey Horan was not as involved offensively as the Thorns would like, although she came up big with a few key passes that led to goals, but it’s her defensive work that has improved this season and played a role in shutting down players like Marta. If she can disrupt the Courage’s possession and passing game before it can get to players like Williams and Denise O’Sullivan, she can help the Thorns control the tempo of the match.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Hatch is up for Rookie of the Year for good reason. She has a nose for goal, with her seven tallies second on the team and most in the in the league for a rookie. She’s quick and tenacious with a knack for crashing the box to catch a rebound or a tap-in. In a year where Jess McDonald has transitioned to the bench due to injury, Hatch’s contributions have been invaluable in getting the Courage this far.
Perhaps the most underrated defender out there, Menges anchors the backline and makes Adrianna Franch’s job a lot easier. She’s always in the right place at the right time, covering large swathes of property as the other defenders push up. Her presence allows Meghan Klingenberg to get high and wreak havoc on the left flank. Facing the firepower that multiple Courage forwards are capable of, Menges’ importance can’t be understated.
McCall Zerboni versus Lindsey Horan
In what’s almost sure to be a chippy battle in midfield, the winner of this duel could determine the winner of the game. Each of these players can rightfully make a claim for being MVP for their team this season. They’re unafraid of going into hard tackles in order to win a ball or stop a counterattack, and that means these two are likely to meet time and again in the center of the park.
Taylor Smith versus Meghan Klingenberg
Both fullbacks love getting up the pitch, and their offensive contributions outweigh their defensive prowess. Smith’s speed can leave Klingenberg in the dust and could give her an advantage if she catches Klingenberg up the pitch, while the Thorns’ left back is craftier in the attack and has the skills to get past Smith and deliver quality service. Look for plenty of 1v1 moments between the two.
Keep an eye on:
• Set pieces, set pieces, set pieces