Dejected Tobin Heath, NWSL Championship, 092218
Photo by John Todd

North Carolina raises bar, wins NWSL title in Portland over Thorns

PORTLAND, Ore. – The North Carolina Courage did more than claim the NWSL title on Saturday at Providence Park. They did more than give one of the most dominant title-game performances in U.S. professional women’s soccer history, and they did more than cap the best season in league history, one which saw the Courage leave Portland Thorns FC’s field with only one loss in 26 games.

What North Carolina did was raise the bar. They set a standard that is beyond anything we’ve seen before in this part of the world. With a 3-0 victory over the league’s defending champions, the Courage made their claim as the best women’s team in the history of U.S. professional soccer.

“Full credit to them,” Thorns captain Christine Sinclair said on the field, after the final whistle. “They deserved it, this year. (They) made it very difficult to play against. Just lethal going forward because of their counterattack and set pieces. Yeah, they got us, today.”

They got the Thorns all year. Hopes were high for Portland coming into Saturday’s final, with the last two months of the team’s season giving many license to overlook something that feels so relevant, now.

Portland had gone 0-3-0 against North Carolina in 2018, coming into the game. Their worst loss of the season – a 4-1, May defeat in Goose Hollow – happened at the hands of the Courage. North Carolina had outscored the Thorns 6-1 on the season, leaving the 2017 champions without a victory over the two-time defending NWSL Shield winners since last year’s Championship game in Orlando, Florida.

After that game, though, North Carolina added a U.S. international to midfield: Crystal Dunn. They added a U.S. international at right back: Merritt Mathias. They added the need for redemption after being bullied in the 1-0 last year in Orlando, and they were facing a Thorns team that had lost so much.

French international Amandine Henry. Danish international Nadia Nadim. Icelandic international Dagny Brynjarsdottir. Australian international Ashleigh Sykes. Katherine Reynolds and Hayley Raso, starters in last year’s final, were injured and unable to play in Saturday’s rematch. Portland remains one of the most talented teams in the NWSL – losing players is barely an excuse – but between last year’s title winners and this year’s runners up, things had to change.

North Carolina’s McCall Zerboni, one of the Courage’s best players, was also absent on Saturday, but for the Thorns, youth has had a major part in replacing the talent they lost. Right back Ellie Carpenter is only 18 years old. Caitlin Foord, the team’s starting striker, is 23. Celeste Boureille, 24, has stepped into midfield, while Midge Purce played multiple roles as a 23-year-old.

“Midway through the season, I don’t think we thought we were going to be hosting the semifinals and making it to the final,” Sinclair said. “We were struggling to be in the top four. We really came together the last month-and-a-half, two months of the season. It’s hard to see it now, but just super proud of this whole team.”

The inexperience, though, may have shown in Saturday’s first half, even if the result was less about the Thorns’ failures than the Courage’s successes. Carpenter struggled to manage the threats down her flanks, but for the most part, Portland’s spots of inexperience showed in an inability to match North Carolina’s level.

And after Saturday, it’s unclear anybody, right now, is capable of matching their output.

“That was a really hard first half,” Portland head coach Mark Parsons. “They had a lot of confidence. We had a good start, our first five, 10 (minutes). There was a spell where we just got bogged down and played to their strengths. We didn’t play to our strengths …

“It was going to be hard to come back from that. We believed we could, but the third goal was going to be crucial. We knew that if we could nick it, we could get this place rolling. Unfortunately, they grabbed it.”

It was a goal, like the day’s first, that could have gone another way. Debinha opened the scoring in the first half when a ball off Adrianna Franch’s right post fell to her in front of goal. North Carolina beat Portland’s defensive line badly on the second, allowing game MVP Jessica McDonald to head a second into an open net, while the third left Ana Crnogorčević, Lindsey Horan and Emily Sonnett yelling at officials about what the south end’s scoreboard hinted was a missed offside call.

But the goals weren’t the only times North Carolina looked the better side. McDonald headed a cross over the bar from close range in the first half. Lynn Williams was put in alone on Franch shortly after. McDonald, cutting onto her right foot in the 65th minute, could have added to North Carolina’s haul, while Franch deliver a great save in the second half on Williams (although the Courage scored on the ensuing corner).

About every 15 minutes, the Courage significantly threatened Franch’s goal, interrupting periods of Portland hope with a reminder of the favorites’ talent. The best the Thorns could do was reduce the flow to a drip, but seemingly whenever they regained focus, North Carolina opened up the faucet.

“We’ve got to get better,” left back Meghan Klingenberg said. “We’ve got to be able to handle that type of pressure. We’ve got to be able to withstand that type of energy in the first half …

“We need to make sure, going into next season, that we remember what happened, here. Because having this happen in front of our home fans really sucks.”

Sucks, but as Klingenberg alludes, it also provides a clear set of objectives going into next season. No Thorns player should be ashamed of what the team accomplished this year, and even though they didn’t win a title, this team might be better than last year’s. But better than the past is the expectation, at this point in NWSL history, not something that should be considered remarkable. The Courage, remarkable on Saturday, are now the bar, regardless of what happened before.

“You just want to see people who make the right choice all the time rewarded,” Parsons said, alluding to the quality of his new group. “Today wasn’t that day. At some point, I’ve got to reflect – that won’t be yet – reflect to make sure we keep going in the right direction.”

Come 2019, the Thorns will get their chance at revenge, just like the Courage got theirs, this season. Over the last three years, that mantle has gone back-and-forth, giving one rival than the other motivation to redeem themselves. That redemption was evident in McDonald, who claimed MVP honors at her former team’s home; Jealene Hinkle, who delivered a great game at left back in the face of the Rose City Riveters’ boos; Abby Erceg, the team’s captain who competed with Hinkle for best defender on the field; and Paul Riley and Scott Vallow, coach and assistant who spent the 2014 and 2015 seasons in Portland.

Next year, Carpenter will be a year older, as well as a year more accustomed to her life in Portland. So will Foord. So will Purce. The team will have a chance to make the Crystal Dunn and Merritt Mathias-esque additions that helped push North Carolina over the top, and just as the Courage reflected on being pushed around last year in Orlando, the Thorns will have an opportunity to assess being steamrolled in Portland.

Like the Courage, they could come back next season far better than before, and in that improvement, the Thorns may develop into something we’ve never seen before. They have the talent to do so.

But given the course of the NWSL, it may take something special to reclaim the league’s perch. Every season, somebody raising the bar higher than before. North Carolina did that on Saturday. That’s why they claimed this year’s title.