The final numbers were disappointing: a 1-0 loss in a game Thorns FC were outshot, 20-3. Numbers out of context, though, rarely paint a complete picture, and while it’s true Portland’s title defense didn’t begin in the most convincing fashion, there were a number of positives to take from the team’s season-opening loss in North Carolina.
While the Thorns did give up a large number of shots (without generating many of their own), most of those chances came from manageable areas, and while head coach Mark Parsons would not have been happy if, yesterday, you told him his team would only take three shots, some of other chances were smothered by Courage goalkeeper Sabrina D’Angelo before they could register in the shots column.
It was, ultimately, an understandable result on the road, facing an NWSL favorite, while opening a new season. Add in the number of players the Thorns were missing, and the performance can be seen for its positives.
“Missing five internationals, two key players to injury, and two draft picks – nine players – you’d never guess it, because we’re walking away disappointed that we didn’t get three points,” Parsons said after his team’s loss in Cary. “This is a very good Carolina Courage team that we’ve got respect for. To perform like this away from home, we didn’t do this once last year … We wanted to start the season on that strong foot, and I thought we did.”
The game itself started on a good note for Portland, who were able to battle their hosts to a standstill for much of the first half hour. Despite the absences of a number of key contributors – Hayley Raso, Tobin Heath, Andressinha and Emily Menges, among the most prominent – Portland went the first 36 minutes without allowing a shot on target.
Come halftime, though, North Carolina had fully captured control, seemingly coming to grips with the Thorns’ high pressure and establishing a consistent presence in their attacking third. Much as Portland prevented the Courage from easily moving out of their defensive zone over the first half-hour, North Carolina began pinning the Thorns, eventually reaching halftime with match in their grasp.
“First 30 minutes, I thought we did really well,” Parsons said. “We controlled a lot of the game. We probably didn’t have enough belief, in the final third, that we needed. They had some momentum near the end of the first half.”
Though Portland regained control to start the second half, North Carolina continued generating chances on Adrianna Franch’s goal, and while few of them were good lucks, the pure quantity of Courage chances eventually paid off. In the 70th minute, with a shot from just beyond the arc, Debinha beat Franch into the upper-right corner, giving the hosts all the goals they’d need to secure their result.
“Just a piece of Brazilian magic to break down a very resilient back line,” Parsons said, before lauding the performance of his hamstrung squad.
“I’m just really proud of the whole group,” he explained. “When players start coming back, how am I going to find room for them, because the players, the way they’ve performed against a very good team that everyone’s picked to finish first, missing just one player – we’re missing nine players. I’m just proud of everyone’s performance.”
Proud, and also looking forward to what’s next. Although players like Mallory Weber, Ifeoma Onumonu, Celeste Boureille and Kelli Hubly performed admirably in their roles, there is certainly room for improvement. And if that improvement surface over the next week, Portland will be in much better shape to potentially claim three points in game two, when they’ll face a similarly hamstrung team in Chicago.
“This is a great start, and something we can build off of …,” Parsons said. “We didn’t get the reward for all our hard work today. Didn’t get those rewards, so we continue working until they pay off.