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North Carolina Courage

Paul Riley has shaped the culture and tactics of the best NWSL side so far

(Photo Copyright Patti Giobetti for The Equalizer)

POTRLAND, Ore. — In a small press box high above the field at Benedictine University, Paul Riley goes out of his way to compliment his opponents on the night. And beyond the standard clichés about Chicago being a good team, the coach takes time to lavish individual praise on a half dozen Red Stars players.

It is April 2015 and Riley—the head coach of the Portland Thorns—is still near the beginning of what will turn out to be a difficult year for his squad. Even so, he is just as happy and enthusiastic sharing his thoughts about Chicago as he is answering questions about his own side.

That evening, Riley has started the Thorns in an experimental 3-6-1 formation, including a box midfield, a gambit that requires both tactical courage and an innovative spirit. The match ends in a 2-2 draw, but by the end of the year, Portland and their six wins will not qualify for the playoffs for the first time before or since. After the season, the Thorns and Riley will unceremoniously part ways with plenty of Portland fans ready to say good riddance.

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