Britt Eckerstrom, Thorns vs. Courage, 7.17.20
(ISI Photos)

Eckerstrom, Thorns cause nightmares for Courage in NWSL Challenge Cup victory

When North Carolina Courage midfielder Debinha goes to sleep tonight, it would be little surprise if her dreams are fretful and filled with nightmares of Portland Thorns FC goalkeeper Britt Eckerstrom.

Eckerstrom, making her first start in the NWSL Challenge Cup presented by P&G and Secret in a massive quarterfinal match up between the eighth-seeded Thorns and top-seeded Courage, put in a masterful performance with a career-high eight saves as Portland shutout North Carolina 1-0 Friday morning at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman, Utah.

Debinha took seven shots for the Courage, five of them on target, and each time, Eckerstrom was up to the task of denying North Carolina and, almost improbably, making each save’s brilliance to seemingly top the previous one.

Take for instance this one from the 79th minute with her team up 1-0 and Debinha, a free kick master of a global level, hit a ball that seemed destined for the upper 90 only to have Eckerstrom jump to her right and knock it away with one hand.

With Bella Bixby injured in training earlier this week and who had played all four tournament games for Portland up to this point unavailable and Adrianna Franch never traveling to Utah due to an injury suffered in preseason, Eckerstrom stepped in and stepped up.

“It was going to take a team performance and that’s what happened,” Eckerstrom said, humbly, following the match. “We all had a role to play and we all played those really well today and got the goal that we’d been missing.”

That goal was only the second scored against North Carolina in the tournament and came in the 68th minute from rookie forward Morgan Weaver – her first in her NWSL career – following a clever nutmeg pass from midfielder Rocky Rodríguez.

“I had to shoot the ball and it finally happened today,” said Weaver of the goal. “I’m so excited to share the win with my teammates.”

“Team.” “Teammates.” They’re two common words that come up often with this group and Thorns head coach Mark Parsons believes that they’re indicative of the culture this club has built. Between numerous injuries hitting the team – goalkeeping coach Nadine Angerer was signed as an emergency backup goalkeeper for the match – along with the challenges of heat, isolation and tournament grind, Parsons points to that culture in helping power the team through to the win and into the tournament semifinals.

“We showed what our culture is about [today],” Parsons told Ann Schatz and Karina LeBlanc in the Thorns Postgame show. “The group sees a setback and steps forward.”

“Obviously, not our best performance in what we tried to do but the heart, the character, the spirit, the togetherness, the mentality was out of this world,” he added in an interview with after the match. “We’ve had results not be great but the performance be very good and the belief hasn’t dampened. Actually, the belief’s got stronger which is unique.

“It says a lot about our group.”

A group that included players like midfielder Angela Salem who was buzzing throughout the match and helping shield the backline. Centerback Kelli Hubly is another who has stepped up, coming in for the injured Becky Sauerbrunn and has performed superbly. Captain Christine Sinclair, though not on the scoresheet yet, was still craftily killing time late in the game helping hold possession near the NC corner flag to frustrate her opponents. The list could go on.

"I think we could have played another 90 and we wouldn’t have conceded because of the commitment to a lot of great hard work," said Parsons.

Thorns defender Meghan Klingenberg, who put in another gritty performance and was also part of that backline that held the Courage scoreless, knows that while the team getting their first win in Utah was definitely welcome, it’s only the beginning.

“We’re on to the next because we’ve got to keep building," she said. "We’ve got to keep climbing. That is the culture of this group. That’s the mentality of this group. This performance isn’t ‘it’ for us. This is big. We’re happy but we know we have so much more left in the tank so we’ve got to get after it.”

So while Debinha and her Courage teammates may have unhappy dreams for a while, it would appear the Thorns will sleep soundly tonight and then, get back to work.