What’s the standard for Sunday when Portland visits North Carolina Courage (3pm PT, NWSLsoccer.com)? For most games, the standard would be win, and undoubtedly, in the single day of preparation Thorns FC will have on the ground in Cary, North Carolina, ahead of the team’s third meeting of the year with the Courage, that will be the standard espoused.
The Thorns are the reigning NWSL champions, the only team in the league with two stars above their crest and, in players like Christine Sinclair, Lindsey Horan,Tobin Heath and Adrianna Franch, can proclaim to have some of the league’s best at their positions. If there’s ever a game Portland enters where, before kickoff, they feel they can’t win, the organization has gone off course.
But beneath that bluster, Sunday is undoubtedly different, and it’s different for two reasons. First, in nearly six years this top league of women’s soccer in the United States has existed, no team has played as well as the Courage. The overbearing combination of talent, style, and execution Paul Riley’s team has exhibited week-in, week-out since the season’s youngest moments has put the NWSL’s former standard bearers to shame. The FC Kansas City teams that Lauren Holiday led to titles in 2014 and 2015? Or the Seattle Reign FC squads that Kim Little pushed to regular season dominance those same seasons? They’re remembered as elites for good reason, but any NWSL watchers who are honest with themselves should admit both would face this Courage squad as underdogs.
The other reason this game is different comes down to the Thorns, and where the team is at in the course of their season. Portland may be in third place, but they’re 17 points back of the Courage with six games to play. That’s how amazing North Carolina’s been. As a result, though, the idea of tracking down the leaders, finishing first, and clinching home-field advantage throughout the playoffs is meaningless. For the Thorns, it wouldn’t even matter, because thanks to this year’s final being in Portland, a second-place finish (and the semifinal, home-field advantage that comes with it) would be almost as good as a first. Portland surely wants to finish as high in the standings as possible, but because of the Courage’s lead and the postseason’s format, they can afford to see a longer arc to their trials.
The Thorns need to be in position to take second place when they face the Seattle Reign, currently in second, on the last day of the season. That’s 35 days away, and while there are important games against Orlando, Chicago and … oh, yeah, North Carolina between then and now, Portland can afford to drop a point or two as long as they stay within reach of Seattle. Second place is as good as first right now, and you don’t need to hit a specific point threshold to claim it.
As has been the case all season for Portland, 2018 is all about the progression, even if that progression hasn’t always been smooth. Fans and frenemies alike remember the defensive errors which undermined the season’s first months, as well as the attacking elements that sometimes seemed missing before the returns of Heath and Hayley Raso, as well as the adaptation of Ana Crnogorčević. The three-game winning streak Portland carried into the just-ended Tournament of Nations hints those uncertain days are behind them – that the progression is coming to fruition as the team enters this season’s final stage.
The big thing now, though, is testing the progress. So everything looks fine against Utah, then Houston? They’re good teams. You want to post impressive results against them, and the Thorns did, of late, winning by a combined 7-1. At Sky Blue, the team lost five starters (one early into the match) and still ground out a result, but at some point, you need to test the progress against the end goal. And the greatest complement you can give to North Carolina, right now, is that they’ve become the end goal.
In that sense, this trip to North Carolina couldn’t come at a better time. There are five games in the regular season after this one, so any areas of need that surface during the team’s second trip to Cary, this season, can be addressed over the campaign’s final month. In addition, the progress the team has made since the May 30, 4-1 defeat to the Courage at home – a game in which head coach Mark Parsons, in some ways, very much “went for it” – can be fully assessed. Plot a line between that May meeting and where the team would need to be by a potential title-game rematch on September 22. Are the Thorns on course?
That, and not winning, is the actual standard come Sunday. The Thorns can tell themselves that, and Parsons can confess that to the press, but a win at North Carolina would be a tall ask under almost any circumstances, let alone when the Courage are playing like the best team in NWSL history.
No, the main goal for the Thorns in Sunday’s meeting has to be convincing themselves, regardless of the result, that all the work they have put in over the previous five months has kept them on course. That the lead that the Courage have forged on the field is not insurmountable. That the standard North Carolina has raised over the course of this season is, thanks to players like Sinclair, Horan and Heath, still within reach. Come Sunday night, no matter the final score, Thorns FC has to leave the field at WakeMed Park convinced that, a month-and-a-half from now, the Courage can be beaten.
And, by the way, what happens if the Thorns can win, now? Not in September. Not six weeks from now. What if the metal that the NWSL has constantly seen over the last two years from the Thorns again shines through? What if the mentality that imposed its will on North Carolina in last year’s final finds a way to impose itself once more?
What if, once we reach Sunday’s final whistle, we have a debate again? Thorns versus Courage. North Carolina versus Portland. Just as it’s been for much of the last two seasons?
What if North Carolina is touchable, after all? Then it will be the Courage worried about their progression, not the Thorns.