One of the NWSL’s best rivalries reignites Friday evening when the Portland Thorns FC host the North Carolina Courage at Providence Park (7:30pm PT, TICKETS, CBS Sports Network).
Sure, games against OL Reign have the hatred baked into the I5 pavement connecting Portland and Seattle, but any matchup with the far more distant Courage deserves to be called a rivalry game, too.
What Portland and Cary, NC lack in geographical closeness, they more then make up for in crushing victories and sour losses. In 2016, when North Carolina––then the Western New York Flash––ended the Thorns' playoff run in in a dramatic 4-3 battle at Providence Park. Since then, games between the two sides have only escalated in drama. Portland took the NWSL crown in 2017 while the Courage stole it right back the next season. In 2019, North Carolina blanked the Thorns 6-0 in Portland. In 2020, the Thorns took revenge by eliminating the Courage from the inaugural Challenge Cup.
With their May 7 meeting postponed, the tension has been allowed to build up for a lot longer. And the showdown couldn't come at a more crucial time for the Thorns.
Here are three things we're watching for on Friday night.
1. What is up with North Carolina this year?
Games between Portland and North Carolina have often been top-of-the-table clashes between two NWSL powerhouses. This season, the second-place Thorns (6-1-6, 24pts) will welcome a bottom-of-the-table Courage (2-5-3, 9pts). To use a different metric, the Courage are winless in their last four matches while the Thorns haven’t lost a game since May 21.
Still, there's no reason to expect the Thorns to take their foot off the gas pedal.
“We want to continue to bring our relentlessness and standards into the game against North Carolina; we’re taking no prisoners,” rookie midfielder Sam Coffey said. “We’re excited to play them on Friday and want another three points to keep this streak going.”
2. The Thorns are back together again at home for the first time since June
On Friday night, Providence Park will welcome a newly reunited Thorns team back on the field.
It has been a while since those in the Rose City have last seen the likes of Christine Sinclair, Sophia Smith, Rocky Rodriguez or Natalia Kuikka suit up in black and red. Several players returned to the lineup for the Thorns’ 2-1 win against Racing Louisville last Friday, but they haven’t played at home since Jun. 19.
Will Smith produce another incredible highlight or Becky Sauerbrunn help Portland secure its second clean sheet in three games? We don’t know for sure, but with the Thorns in a heated back-and-forth battle with the San Diego Wave at the top of the table, it’s exciting to envision what the next 90 minutes of Portland soccer, and beyond, will look like.
“This week has been huge in getting us back together,” Coffey said. “It has been a day-by-day process, but I think everyday we’re all getting back on the same track and finding our rhythm again as a group.”
3. Hina is a rock in the midfield.
Quietly consistent, midfielder Hina Sugita continues her stellar debut season in the Rose City, reluctant to accept the hype surrounding her that she has fully deserved.
With four goals and an assist, Sugita serves as a fulcrum in Portland’s midfield and contributes much more than can be observed in a simple box score. Thirteen games now under her belt –– tied with Kelli Hubly as the only two players to appear in every match –– nobody can top her consistency and reliability.
“She talks a lot about not being just a playmaker, but also a goalscorer,” Wilkinson said after her team’s game against Racing Louisville on Jul. 29. “You see her commitment to get into the box and she has been scoring those goals because she’s finding a way to get into those spaces.”
Sugita showed off her goal-scoring instincts against Racing Louisville, scoring late on a rebound in the box to Portland to take all three points in Louisville; on Jul. 10, a tidy finish at the back post helped the Thorns steal a point against the Reign. Her goals are easy to point out, but it’s her ability to act as glue in the midfield as well as her locker room presence that has drawn praise from teammates. Not always the most flashy Thorn, Sugita is certainly worthy of recognition as the battle for the NWSL Shield heats up.