PORTLAND, Ore. – There were only two ways it could have gone, with no room between the best- and worst-case scenarios. Either the North Carolina Courage were going to come back to Providence Park, continue the success they’ve had against the Portland Thorns over the last season-plus, and throw the rest of the hosts’ season into doubt, or there would be a breakthrough, giving the Thorns reason to believe that, should the two teams meet again in the postseason, 2019’s story will be different from 2018’s.
Though some elements of the result are destined to be debated between the two sides between now and October, the impact of the outcome won’t. Coming back after giving a fourth-minute goal, Portland took a 2-1 win from a team that’s emerged as their chief rival, changing the course on a disappointing week and shaking up the standings at the top of the NWSL. After Sunday’s result, Portland is back in first place, with the defending Shield winners falling to third.
“The confidence that we get from chasing after this game,” head coach Mark Parsons began, “the way that we worked today – really physically worked, and mentally worked – … we can be as good as anyone and be able to win anywhere. It’s important that we commit to that work day-in, day-out, because today was special.”
North Carolina head coach Paul Riley may have different thoughts. As they always do when the teams meet, the Courage massively outshot the Thorns, trying 20 attempts to Portland’s 10. Even in terms of shots on target, North Carolina had a clear edge, 11 to four, while both of Portland’s scores were own goals. Predictably, and perhaps not without reason, the Courage can carry a series of “if we only” complaints out of Providence Park.
“I think, on those two chances, the crowd was pulling the ball into the back of the net …,” Parsons said, speaking of the NWSL-record 25,218 people in attendance. “It just proves what we’ve been saying. Every part of this stadium is special and important.”
But Sunday’s game was never going to be just about the day’s result. It was going to be about the future. It was going to be about how each team positioned themselves for the postseason, and it was going to be about the doubts both teams have toward the other. For North Carolina, an outlook without doubt that they carried back to Portland has been cracked, on some level. And for Portland, the doubts about last year’s final and the Courage’s 2018 trip to Providence Park (a 4-1 North Carolina win) can be balanced by a new reality. Even if they fall behind early, and even if they have to grind out two goals, the Thorns can beat the Courage.
“It’s like a championship game every time we play,” goalkeeper Adrianna Franch explained. “That’s what we need. (The win) puts us back on top of the table. There are still some things we have to learn from, especially going down a goal at the beginning – we don’t like that. But it is good to see us being able to come back.”
The Thorns’ confidence is, ultimately, all about how the teams matchup in the playoffs. In all likelihood, if the Thorns are going to accomplish everything they want this season, they’re going to have to beat North Carolina again, and they’ll likely have to do it in a win-or-go-home scenario. Before today, there was the potential for that meeting to come after a third-straight loss to the Courage.
Instead of living in that world, Portland can move forward. Last week’s disappointing draw to Sky Blue, or the loss mid-week that left the team confused coming out of Tacoma? They’re irrelevant, particularly with the team is sitting at the top of the standings. Seasons have ups and downs, the latter testing your ability to recover, but come the postseason, it’s about what challenges you’re capable of meeting, and how close you can get to your potential.
“I joked about it the last few days,” Parsons remembered. “Sky Blue, we do everything but put it in the net. Tacoma, we do everything but put the ball in the right place to finish. After those two games, I thought we could only win today.”
In that regard, the Thorns will have work to do. Complaints about the own goals will, on one level, carry a note of truth. Portland didn’t score a conventional goal. And in the attempts Lynn Williams had near the hour mark, as well as other tries from Kristen Hamilton and Crystal Dunn, the Courage could have had more than one goal.
But the Thorns also had other chances that could have come good – most notably, Tobin Heath’s in the 55th minute. And while their day’s goals were from North Carolina errors, Portland showed from the match's earlier moments that they were going to test Labbé’s ability to manage their six-yard box. Portland kept asking questions. Two times, the Courage answered wrong.
Those answers may have a huge impact on North Carolina’s season. Although the Courage will host this year’s NWSL Championship Game no matter what, a third-place finish in the league means a semifinal on the road, and with the Chicago Red Stars having won five games in a row, there are two teams ahead of North Carolina who could close the season strong. For the first time in their NWSL history, the Courage could cede the NWSL Shield.
And, for the first time since they won the honor in 2016, the Thorns are in position to claim that honor. Their win is not only about being confident come October. The victory allows them to continue competing for all things, and it increases the chances there will be another playoff game at Providence Park.
“There’s no odds about it – this game was going to land heads or tails,” Parsons admits. “It landed our way because of our work ethic – the way that we supported each other and worked together. And we had 25,000 of some of the best in the world keeping the ball out for us and sucking it in when we needed it.”
The confidence from those efforts could, come October, prove the key to the season. Whatever trepidation there was among players, coaches and fans about the Courage, it’s gone now; or, at least, it’s been hugely offset. Even if setbacks come, the team can have a new outlook on the Courage