NWSL Preview, Thorns vs. NC, 8.11.19

NWSL Preview | Thorns versus Courage has become one of the sport's marquee matchups

This is the game you circle on your calendar when the schedule comes out; the one you say you can’t miss, no matter what, if you’re going to miss a game at all. It’s the opponent you wait for all season, with their one trip to Providence Park guaranteed to be the most meaningful game on the calendar.

This is what the North Carolina Courage has become. For two straight years, they’ve met Portland Thorns FC in the National Women’s Soccer League final, with the teams splitting those outcomes. The last time another group of players claimed an NWSL honor was in 2015. Between then and now, every league Shield or title has gone to Portland, North Carolina, or the Courage’s predecessors in Western New York.

These are the two titans of the NWSL, teams that have either won the championship or been eliminated by the other in four of the league’s six seasons. The only time another team has eliminated the Thorns or the Courage from the postseason was in 2014, when Portland lost to eventual champions FC Kansas City. Teams like the Chicago Red Stars and Reign FC are doing great jobs to keep up, but Sunday’s game at Providence Park will feature the two standard bearers for the NWSL (12pm PT, TICKETS, ESPNews). No teams have accomplished more.

Oh, they’re also first and second in the league, right now, and previously played to a 1-1 draw in Cary, North Carolina, earlier this season. With the World Cup players back and integrated into their teams, this is one of the best matchups you could ask for in all of women’s soccer.

Here are three angles to know ahead of Sunday’s kickoff:

The rivalry of now

It was at the beginning of last season that some fans first started to say it: that the Courage had become Portland’s biggest rival. Back then, it felt a little bit soon, even if the teams had faced each other in consecutive postseasons. But after another year of heightened tensions and a second-straight meeting in the final, those words ring a little more true. Perhaps the Courage truly are, right now, the Thorns’ greatest rivals?

It’s easy to lose perspective on these things, get too caught up in the moment, and let that moment define something broader than the now. But other times, perspective gets in the way, and tries to say what you’re feeling in real time is somehow naïve, or wrong.

That feeling, though, may be the most important part of Sunday’s matchup. It feels big. It feels bigger than Portland’s dynamic with Reign FC, right now. And while years into the future that might have faded, and the regional animus between Portland and Not-Seattle will win out, it would be naïve to deny the obvious. Today, the matchup against North Carolina just feels like something more.

Short rest vs. long travel?

Ideally, Portland would have had a normal week to prepare for the Courage and not have to manage a mid-week game in Tacoma. But North Carolina has obstacles to deal with, too. Although they would have had to come to Portland, at some point, no matter what, the challenges of cross-country travel, losing a day’s training, and playing away from home are still real. Each of those things have an impact on a team’s performance.

It’s unclear who’s worse off. Maybe we can get the NWSL’s head coaches to vote. If you had to choose, would you play a mid-week game with minimal travel or have a one-game week but have to cover over 3,000 miles? It might depend on where you are in your season, or how your particular players respond to those challenges.

In both cases, though, Portland and North Carolina will have obstacles. Maybe they won’t define Sunday’s performances, but they could play a small part.

The value of knowledge

If the final weeks of the NWSL season will be about rounding into playoff form, Sunday’s game will provide a crucial barometer. Win, lose or draw, the top two teams in the NWSL are going to know how they stack up against the other. Even with the high degree of knowledge each already has of the other, both will get a better idea of where the other is weak, where the other is strong, and how likely the other is to improve. Perhaps as important, they’ll learn the same about themselves.

Perhaps, too, we’ll see some experimentation, even if it’s subtle. Last season, Portland head coach Mark Parsons made a dramatic change to his formation for North Carolina’s regular season visit, moving Tobin Heath into central midfield as part of an attack-minded setup. The result was disastrous, a 4-1 loss at home, but it bought some valuable information. That type of approach was not going to work against the Courage.

Sometimes, the price of knowledge is points. Other times, it’s just time and effort. On Sunday, the NWSL’s top two teams should gain a wealth knowledge.