Midge Purce, Thorns at North Carolina Courage, 06.15.19

Two of the most talented teams in the National Women’s Soccer League were missing their biggest stars on Saturday in Cary, North Carolina, but in the night’s 1-1 draw, the dynamic that’s developed between the North Carolina Courage and Portland Thorns FC was on full display. Particularly in the second half, the Courage’s overwhelming effort nearly the defined the game, while the Thorns earned their result by relying on moments of poise and execution.

“First half: controlled the game, had the best chances, denied them,” Thorns FC head coach Mark Parsons listed off after the match, explaining, “you obviously have to put the game into two halves.”

“I don’t think anyone’s done that to them in their stadium,” he continued, describing the first 45 minutes. “Second half: fatigue, seven road games out of eight, just after the break, playing against a team that runs forever.”

The most prominent of Portland’s moments of execution came in that first half, when Midge Purce scored her fourth goal in three games with a one-touch finish past an on-rushing Samantha Leshnak. The score came from a moment of transition, an approach that nearly came good in the second half, too, though a few chances at counter attacks failed to build to a final ball. By that time, North Carolina had pinned more of Portland’s players deep in their defensive half, with efforts to keep the hosts from building on Julia Spetsmark’s 59th-minute goal and preventing the Thorns from supporting Purce.

“In the first half, we had players that had the freshness to be able to take advantage of the huge space that they leave in transition,” Parsons explained. “In the second half, we didn’t have that. The players had emptied the tank.”

Come full time, the numbers reflected the Courage’s oppression. Their edge in shots, 21-7, was not uncommon for this matchup, but the 65.8 percent possession North Carolina accumulated was more than normal. The Courage amassed 431 passes, completing them at a 72.9 percent clip, while the Thorns’ connections faltered. For the wrong reasons, 42.0 percent will be a memorable mark.

“Let’s just step back,” Parsons said, sensing context to North Carolina’s second half was needed. “It’s our first point in Carolina in three years. Our first point comes when we’re missing nine to the World Cup, an international, and two senior players due to injury.

“There couldn’t have been more adversity coming in. But what these players produced tonight in work rate, desire, effort, and also just doing whatever it takes, especially in the second half, not to concede was inspirational.”

That adversity is part of the reason Saturday’s point should be seen as a valuable one, and not only because of the team’s World Cup absences and the North Carolina trip being Portland’s seventh of eight games on the road. Emily Menges was a scratch with a leg injury, Angela Salem had knee surgery in the days before kickoff, while Icelandic international Dagny Brynjardóttir was with her national team. Beyond the World Cup absences that each team shared, the Thorns truly faced some unique challenges.

The biggest challenge, it has to be said, was North Carolina itself. Although Portland could be said to have gotten the best of the first half, the Courage emerged from intermission on a new level – the same level they’ve played at since head coach Paul Riley joined the group over three years ago. More than any other team during that time, North Carolina’s come to embody the power of effort and belief, with their play portraying a conviction: that constant work will, invariably, deliver results.

That’s the Courage we saw in today’s second half. The “runs forever” Courage, as Parsons might call them. Gone was the team trying a different approach, hoping to play through Portland and offer a different look. What returned to the field was a group desperate to push forward, willing to pump the ball into the box, and capable of keeping you pushed up against your own goal. That’s where the 65.8 percent possession came from. That’s why Portland could only complete 42.0 percent of their passes.

“The good part is, we resorted them back to their old football,” Parsons said. “They got it wide and tried to cross it, and otherwise, they just smashed it behind. Unfortunately, one of their smashes, their long balls, was the chance that ended up getting them a goal. But we made them change. We made them change, and they played a game they didn’t want to, and we took a while to adjust.”

North Carolina deserves immense credit for that adjustment, and not only in a way that recognizes the night’s performance. The Courage have become a team that’s capable of replicating their approach even when they lose their score talent. Seven starters are away at the World Cup, right now, yet in today’s second half, you could have taking the names and numbers off the backs of the jerseys and known North Carolina was on the field. Nobody anywhere in the world plays like the Courage.

That’s why, for the Thorns, today’s point should mean so much. Parsons is right to note that almost no teams play well in Cary. That the Thorns where the slightly better team for a half was an accomplishment on its own. The realities of the second half have to be acknowledged, but once you do, you can look up at the scoreboard, remember the first half and recall Portland’s hardships when recognizing their performance.

For a player like Gabby Seiler, this is the first time she’s been subjected to that gauntlet. Same for Elizabeth Ball, in a 90-minute role. Purce started last year’s opener at Sahlen’s Stadium, but in the exhausting effort she gave up top, you could see today’s game was on another level. For them and others, the experience of surviving the day could prove invaluable. They now know the sacrifice it takes to compete on that level, and they suspect they could have had more.

“They’re frustrated they didn’t win the game,” Parsons explained, “which sums up their mentality right now.

“I’m OK with a point, because it’s our first point (in North Carolina), and we’re missing so much, and the players just haven’t built the fitness. So, I’m OK at the end with the result, with that second half. They’re pissed. They’re frustrated they didn’t get three, and it just sums up this break spirit that they have right now. I’m loving every moment of it.”

From both sides, the game highlighted the dynamic we’ve become to expect between the Courage and Thorns. That we saw it despite so many absences says so much about both clubs. For North Carolina, their ethos comes through in their performance, no matter the names on in the lineup. And in the sacrifices we saw from Portland, a new set of names proved capable of meeting that challenge.

“There were players on the pitch that couldn’t run in the end, and I’m just asking them to not get injured,” Parsons said. “That’s how much they worked.”