Thorns Preview, Thorns vs. NC, 5.30.18
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

Thorns FC NWSL Preview | A brief history of Portland's emerging rivalry with the North Carolina Courage

Some rivalries feel obligatory. Be it by geography, culture, or history, when it comes to the animus between some cities, there’s an undeniable relationship that requires sports fans to hate each other.

Portland’s obvious example is Seattle, with the conflict between Thorns FC and Reign FC an example that proves the rule. Was there anything between the teams that required Thorns fans to hate the Reign when the NWSL began five years ago? Of course not. Neither team had any history. But when it was time to build a bonfire, build a bonfire, and decide whooooooooo was on top, the newest Seattle franchise was part of the bloody lot.

Tellingly, the supporters choice for “the middle” of that famous chant rests over 2,800 miles from the Rose City. Such is the link the North Carolina Courage have already forged with their Cascadian counterparts. While that team’s current incarnation is less than two seasons old, the history the former Western New York Flash carried with them from Rochester, New York, ensures the current NWSL Shield holders remain atop the Rose City Riveters’ most wanted list. And until some prominent figures fade out of the Courage scene, that antipathy is bound to continue.

“These are the games, that us, as soccer players, love,” Thorns midfielder Lindsey Horan said, the day before the teams’ latest installment. “You want a big game. You want a big rivalry. Everyone on our team feels that and is excited.”

That’s what gives Wednesday’s game at Providence Park more meat than most (7:30pm PT, NWSLsoccer.com/go90). On one level, it’s a midseason, regular-season game in a league that’s evermore accepting that its postseason defines greatness. Within that context, a May match can only have so much value. But when you have two teams who, over the last two years, have claimed every NWSL honor – and have claimed six of the 10 major team honors in league history – it’s never going to be a “regular” regular-season game. Add in the presence of some prominent former Thorns amid the Courage’s setup, and you see why a rivalry has formed, even if that conflict still feels so new.

“It feels a bit different from the other games we’ve played,” Portland head coach Mark Parsons said, ahead of the arrival of the NWSL’s first-place team. "The vibe feels different, the energy. Players have got the bit between the teeth and want to come out firing tomorrow.

“It’s two heavyweights going head-to-head, and nothing gets more exciting than when the best teams play each other.”

Forward Jessica McDonald and midfielder McCall Zerboni are among the Courage stars from Portland’s past (both have gotten U.S. Women’s National Team looks and NWSL Best XI honors since joining the Flash/Courage), but the main target of fan antagonism is North Carolina’s head coach, somebody who used to patrol the technical area of Providence Park. Riley left friends and fond memories among many in Portland’s front office, but fans have since developed a more conflicted view, one which, in hindsight, became the first embers in the Thorns-Courage rivalry. While Portland had faced Western New York in the 2013 NWSL Championship, few came away from that game with hatred for the Flash. It was only after Riley arrived there in 2015, taking over a team brimming with young talent, that Riveters had a focal point. As the man who’d disappointed in Portland forged a surprised contender – with the maturation of future internationals like Samantha Mewis, Abby Dahlkemper, Lynn Williams and Jaelene Hinkle fueling their rise – the Thorns’ old boss became a threat to Portland’s emerging power.

That power was embodied by the 2016 Shield, with Parsons’ arrival from the Washington Spirit bringing a dramatic and immediate turnaround in the team’s fortunes. Come the postseason, however, Riley got an element of vindication, perhaps fully cementing his team as Portland’s rivals. In perhaps the most exciting game in NWSL history, the fourth-seeded Flash upset the Thorns at Providence Park, needing extra time to secure a 4-3, semifinal victory en route to a surprise league title. That, along the way, the title came at the expense of Riley’s former team may be a footnote in his history, but for the Thorns, it was the conflict to build a rivalry on.

Last October, Portland got their own note of vindication, defeating the Courage 1-0 in the NWSL Championship game, denying Riley and his core a second-straight title in the process. Just like in 2016, the year’s best regular-season team had been derailed in the postseason, and, just like the year before, that pitfall stoked the embers.

It may be only May, and both these teams may be building toward the postseason, but for one spring night in Providence Park, the NWSL could take on a playoff feel.

“I’ll be really honest, this feels like a bit of a cup game,” Parsons said, conceding the Thorns’ matchup with their rival was a big one. “We’re going to do whatever it takes to get the result …”

Now, with the Courage returning to Portland for the first time in 10 months, an unlikely rivalry gets its latest chapter, one which could be the prelude to yet another postseason showdown.

What to watch for on Wednesday:

  • Given the history of this matchup, goals shouldn’t be on your watch list. The four times these teams have met since the Courage’s move to North Carolina have, each time, produced 1-0 results. The Courage have won both times at home; the Thorns have taken both results in Portland or on neutral fields.

  • Something you can watch for: international talent talent. Three Thorns (Tobin Heath, Horan, Midge Purce) were named to the squad of the U.S.’ upcoming friendlies against China while Christine Sinclair will head to Canada for a friendly against Germany. The Courage had have players (Abby Dahlkemper, Crystal Dunn, Merritt Mathias, Samantha Mewis, Zerboni) that will join the U.S. team during the upcoming international break.

  • Were it not for injuries, the Thorns could have a couple of more players in the U.S. squad. Alas, Emily Sonnett (back) and Adrianna Franch (knee) are still sidelined, as are Hayley Raso (knee) and Bella Geist (quad).

  • North Carolina is dealing with a number of injuries of their own, with starting goalkeeper Sabrina D’Angelo and first-choice midfielder Denise O’Sullivan listed as out for the team’s trip to Portland. Jaelene Hinkle – the best fullback in the NWSL, thus far, this season – is questionable with a right-calf strain.

  • Matchup-wise, the Courage have given teams problems all season with their four-person, box midfield, one that typically keeps them a player up either high or low in the middle. While that usually leaves space to exploit wide, Hinkle (left) and Mathias (right) have held down the flanks well – part of the reason why North Carolina is the league’s last undefeated squad.

  • For most of the year, the strength of Horan and Sinclair has helped offset any disadvantages the Thorns might have in the middle, but as the first 22 minutes against Orlando on May 12 showed, teams might be able to muscle up against Portland and have success through the middle. That day, it was Alanna Kennedy and Toni Pressley – natural central defenders – who provided the Pride’s steal. On Wednesday, Mewis and Zerboni will have to be muscled off the ball.

  • If that happens, Portland should be able to exploit those wide spaces, if the team sticks with its 4-2-3-1 look. While the Thorns’ other formation, a 3-4-1-2, has been crucial in winning two of the teams’ last three meetings, the new approach would pit Heath and Meghan Klingenberg against Mathias, on one side, while Purce and Ellie Carpenter could go at Hinkle on the other. Though some are fond of saying tactics don’t matter, how Parsons sets his team up – and how he uses that shape to attack North Carolina – will be a major factor in Wednesday’s matchup.

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