Tobin Heath, Thorns FC v Courage, 05.30.18
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

Thorns FC on wrong end of statement game from North Carolina Courage

PORTLAND, Ore. – We knew how good the North Carolina Courage was. It was clear in the standings, in the nine-point gap they held atop the league. It was clear last year’s table, where they won the league, as well as the title they claimed the year before, in their final season as the Western New York Flash.

There are plenty of measures of the Courage’s quality that go beyond their 4-1, Wednesday night victory over Portland Thorns FC at Providence Park, a win that could be described in terms of its mosts. It was the most goals the Thorns have conceded at home in a regular-season game since the team’s 5-0 loss to the Flash in 2013. It matches the most times the team has conceded at Providence Park under head coach Mark Parsons, and the three-goal margin was the largest loss the Thorns’ boss has ever been handed in his new home.

“It was a bad night at the office,” Parsons conceded, saying he looked forward to getting back to the training ground to begin the path forward.

“Two big teams go head to head, and the second goal was a sucker punch. I thought the second goal was going to be the decider, and I felt confident we could get it.”

Instead, it was North Carolina who, in the second half, built on Lynn Williams’ first period, penalty-kick opener. They did so in the 58th minute, finding an open Debinha with a far post cross. Her header doubled the Courage’s lead only for Williams to extend it further four minutes later. Two minutes after that, a short-range header from Sam Mewis finished a corner kick to give the visitors an abrupt four-goal margin.

“I’m just disappointed we didn’t play as well as we know we can,” captain Christine Sinclair said, with Katherine Reynolds having found a small piece of consolation late. “At the same time, they’re a very good team, and they punished us tonight.”

The intensity and precision of that punishment is what stood out most. This Courage core has performed well in Portland before, perhaps no better than in the 2016 postseason, when an underdog Flash run out 4-3, extra time winners over a NWSL Shield-winning Thorns.

Wednesday’s execution was reminiscent in effect but not style. Back then, the Flash relied almost exclusively on long, direct play to end Parsons’ first season in Portland. This time, the team’s first half excellence in transition cut through the Thorns’ midfield, with quick play down the right flank able to supply that second-half “sucker punch.”

This wasn’t the same, blunt-if-overwhelming Courage core we’d seen over the last two-plus seasons. Wednesday’s team was an XI capable of exploiting any space on the field, charging through any channel in defense, and starting a landslide on their hosts’ normally solid ground. They came to make a statement, and by full-time, on the scoreboards at both ends of the field, that statement hummed for the Goose Hollow crowd.

“The way that we started, the only time that they got some success was in transition on their weak side number 10,” Parsons said, describing the left-to-right movement through midfield that, with attacking midfielders on each side of the central area, took advantage of Lindsey Horan having to hold down the defensive midfield on her own. “That was the one area that we fixed at halftime. We had two solutions to make sure that weakside 10 wasn’t getting on the ball and running at us, and it looked better immediately.

“The challenge was, we made the sub,” Parsons said, alluding to his bringing on Andressinha in the second half, “we make the change (of formation, to a 4-2-3-1), and the second goal happens. We don’t get to see what Andressinha would do, at that point. We don’t get to see what the shape would do. So, that’s disappointing.”

Disappointing but, as Parsons admitted, indicative of what North Carolina can do. This is a team that, after finishing last season with the league’s second-best goal difference (plus-17), added U.S. international Crystal Dunn, one of the many players who stood out against the Thorns. Merritt Mathias, another addition, has performed well enough at right back to earn a U.S. national team callup, while Williams, having entered the night with one goal in 630 minutes, scored twice against the Thorns.

“The first half we actually played pretty well,” Sinclair said, “and then there was a 10-minute span in the second half where we hit a rut and they punished us for three goals. It just can’t happen against a team like this.”

The “like this” part will be the lingering question from Wednesday’s result. What, exactly, is the Courage like? Are they like the team that has competed for every league honor over the last two seasons? That’s already a high bar. Or, as the historic nature of the night’s result hints, has North Carolina reached a new, perhaps unprecedented level?

“They were everything they have been,” Parsons said. “Hard working. Aggressive. Ready to score goals. Up until the 56th minute, the two teams were very evenly matched. The difference was, we weren’t in a rhythm in the final third.

“It’s a shame that we were having that night, but we were. Carolina seemed to be having the opposite night.”

Now, with that night done, Parsons can use the memories of this match as motivation on the training field. Once there, the first goal will be clear, according to the team’s captain.

“First and foremost, as a team, we need to shore up our defending,” Sinclair said, when asked what the Thorns need to do to reach the Courage’s level. “For years, we’ve been built on a solid defensive team, and I’m not talking about our back line. As a team. The amount of counterattacks we gave up tonight, as a team, we can’t let that happen.

“You’re not going to win many games giving up four goals. We’ve got to start there.”