Gap between Portland, North Carolina shrinks as Courage clinch NWSL Shield

Remember the standard. For Portland Thorns FC, it was always about winning, but for those of us free of those bottom-line notions, there’s more nuance to take out of Sunday evening’s game at WakeMed Park. Where would the result fit into the arc of each team’s season?

For North Carolina, the 2-1 victory clinched their second consecutive NWSL Shield, ending the competitive portion of their regular season and allowing them to focus on the honor that alluded them last year: the NWSL Championship. The four games that remain before the postseason will be about how the league’s favorites position themselves for the playoffs.

The Thorns are in a similar position, albeit with more uncertainty about where they’ll finish in the standings, which is why Sunday’s result can be seen as a positive for them, too. Compared to the 4-1 loss Portland suffered to North Carolina at the end of May, Sunday’s one-goal defeat looks like a significant step forward, and although the Thorns were outshot 31-9 on the night, Mark Parsons’ plan of giving the Courage quantity over quality nearly delivered a surprise result.

“They had a lot of momentum, but they were having momentum in areas that we wanted,” Parsons said of the end of the first half, when North Carolina scored twice within eight minutes of intermission to produce their night’s only goals.

“The first goal was a complete contradiction to what we tactically wanted to have happen in that picture – the opposite thing that we trained, the opposite thing that we talked about happened. And the first time that happened, they punished us.”

Such was Lynn Williams’ first goal of the night, a one-touch finish from close range after the Courage had found Jessica McDonald in space deep on the right side of the field. The second goal came after Portland “missed two or three contacts on a ball that got into the box,” Parsons explained, allowing Williams to clean up from the edge of Adrianna Franch’s six-yard box.

Come the second half, though, the Thorns had recovered. Lindsey Horan’s 10th goal of the year, in the 49th minute, laid the groundwork for what would have been an unlikely point, especially considering a fortunate non-call on a potential first-half penalty as well as McDonald’s miss on a chance to the right of Franch’s goal. McDonald would have another good opportunity after halftime, and a ball rolled across the Portland area for Samantha Mewis could have also been turned into a goal.

But with the second-half introductions of Andressinha and, before her, a debuting Caitlin Foord, the match began to approach even footing. Portland kept themselves in a place to steal a result.

“At halftime, we asked them, ‘give us something positive to build off this,’” Parsons remembered, having to address a group that was down two goals. “’Make sure that we are good finishing this game, that we’re proud of what this 45 minutes look like,' and they did that …

“Second half, when we should have come out and been tired,” Parsons said, alluding to the number of Thorns who accumulated major minutes during the just-completed Tournament of Nations, “we turned it into a positive, and that’s the mentality.”

It was a mentality that showed clear improvement from the teams’ previous meeting. Then, in May, a down period on the second half turned the 1-0 game the teams had carried into halftime into a 4-0 Courage lead, with only a late piece of consolation for Katherine Reynolds scratching the Thorns onto the scoresheet. On Sunday, though, Portland weathered the Courage’s high tide much better, and although the Thorns gave up two goals, they went into halftime still in the game.

“Their actual goals were really frustrating,” Parsons conceded, “but I know that they had a lot strong momentum, and it was tough to keep up with them.

“I think we did manage it better. You’re going to be under the gun. You’re going to go through the storm, at some point. I thought we were much better at dealing with that and staying disciplined.”

And, as a result, the Thorns have their point of progress. After all, the goal for this team this season wasn’t to win a game at WakeMed Park. It was to defend their title, and while the Courage look strongest at this point of the season, the path to the crown doesn’t involve being the league’s best at Game 19.

Game 26 is what matters most, as well as actually getting there come September 22. If the Thorns navigate that route and get to feature in that final at Providence Park, they need only be good enough to beat the Courage (presumably) over 90 minutes, one time, at the end of a season. Games one through 25 won’t matter, anymore. All that will matter is how those 25 games helped you build toward that final, defining moment.

On Sunday, there was no doubt, North Carolina was the better team, but if the Thorns’ progress continues over the next six weeks, reason for doubt could return. Tonight, Portland gave those of us who can overlook one game’s bottom lines reason to believe they can continue to grow.

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