The Portland Thorns claimed their second NWSL title yesterday (Saturday October 14th) with a hard fought 1-0 win over the North Carolina Courage, who were looking for their first.
The game was largely overshadowed by the physicality and the borderline challenges that flew in, especially in the first half. But what are the five main talking points from the match?
The game got away from the referee early
Its never enjoyable putting the officials under the spotlight because of a poor performance, but when referee Danielle Chesky failed to issue a yellow card to Tobin Heath inside the first couple of minutes for a bad challenge on the Courage’s Taylor Smith, it set the tone for the rest of the contest.
Smith was forced off as a result of that challenge, while there were also some late challenges that went unpunished, with the first yellow card not issued until the 41st minute – ironically to Heath.
Kristen Hamilton was also forced off with injury in the first half after an innocuous challenge, which made the Courage’s task even more difficult. With the referee failing to protect the Courage players in the early exchanges, they took matters into their own hands, with some borderline challenges of their own. Just three yellow cards were handed out in the whole match (all to Thorns players), but in truth, it should have been more for both sides.
the NWSL is known for its physicality, Amandine Henry mentioned it to Women’s Soccer Zone in an interview before the match, but tensions spilled over and the game never got into any rhythm. A huge shame, because what we had on show was two immensely talented teams with so much to offer in terms of technical ability and skill. Thorns coach Mark Parsons described it as a “beautiful ugly match.” In truth, it was just ugly!
Emily Menges was the real MVP
This is not an inditement on Lindsey Horan (see below), but Emily Menges, and her partnership with Emily Sonnett, was the main reason the Thorns were able to come out victorious.
The Portland centre-back has rightly received plaudits for her performances this season and her continued omission from Jill Ellis’ National Team squad is one that continues to leave many scratching their heads.
Once again Menges stepped up when called upon and other than a couple of occasions, helped prevent the Courage’s talented front line from getting in beyond her backline.
A key play, which coach Mark Parsons mentioned in his post-match press conference, came in the second half when Jessica McDonald got away from Menges and looked like she may have a clear sight of goal. However, the battling centre-back recovered superbly to block the forward’s effort, which was sure to be heading toward Adriana Franch’s goal, and providing a possible equaliser.
Menges has been excellent all season, and along with her fellow defenders, has played a significant role in the Thorns triumphs this season. A national team cap should come her way – but then it should have a long time ago.
Luck plays a part, and the Courage had none of it
We’ve already spoken about the referee and how the game got away from her early, but it was the Courage who unquestionably suffered, especially early on, from her decisions.
The early loss of Taylor Smith saw Kristen Hamilton have to drop to an outside back, a position coach Paul Riley said she had never played before, and when she herself was injured, Makenzy Doniak then filled in in the position – another who hadn’t played there before.
Such early disruption is never going to help, but sandwiched in between the two goals was a moment of brilliance from Sam Mewis, that deserved a lot more ‘luck.’
The US midfielder pounced on an error from the Thorns to pick up the ball from just inside her own half. She saw Adriana Franch off her line, and subsequently fired an effort with her left foot from distance over the retreating keeper, only to see her effort cannon off the crossbar.
Mewis’ stock, along with McCall Zerboni, has probably risen more than anyone in the league this season, and had her effort dipped a few inches lower, we may have had a different game on our hands.
The Courage huffed and puffed but just couldn’t find that killer ball to unlock the Thorns’ stubborn defence. It was probably early in the second half that you felt this wasn’t going to be the Courage’s day. Lynn Williams raced through and saw a shot blocked by Franch, the rebound fell to McDonald, and on the turn, she took a huge swing with her left foot, and only found air. It was unfortunate for the Courage, who created 16 shots on goal compared with Portland’s four. Lady Luck, was not looking down on North Carolina.
Lindsey Horan’s stock continues to rise
Lindsey Horan popped up in the 50th minute to smash home the winner and while she didn’t see any other clear cut chances during the game, she popped up in the right place at the right time to secure her side’s victory.
Horan joined the Thorns as one of the most promising US forwards from Paris St Germain having decided to skip college and make the move to Europe as a teenager. She showed promise at PSG, but it is back in Portland that her game has developed.
Playing her deeper as part of the midfield has allowed her to be more involved in the game, rather than trying to make things happen from a number ten role – a role Christine Sinclair is performing in very well at the moment as she plays a little deeper. The role allows Horan to make late runs into the box, to spread the ball to areas of the pitch that help start attacks, and to influence the game more as a provider, as well as a scorer.
Horan capitalised on some uncharacteristic poor defending by the Courage to smash home the winner early in the second half, and it was a fitting way to finish a season by a young player who could become one of the USA’s most important players. The key will be to surround her with players who allow her to play her natural game. The loss of Amandine Henry will have an effect, as she mops up and defends behind Horan. The Thorns will need to replace her, and replace her with someone very good.
We could see a second back-to-back NWSL final with the same teams
Duh, they finished first and second in the league, so of course they will be challenging next year. Thanks Captain Obvious!
Okay, its not as bold statement, but with the unpredictable nature of the NWSL and teams at the bottom being able to beat teams at the top, its never easy to make predictions in this league.
The Chicago Red Stars will be looking to put three semi-final losses in the post-season behind them, while the Seattle Reign have now had two seasons outside of the top four after two Shield wins. Every team can make a case for challenging for the play-offs, if they get their recrutment right.
That recruitment pressure falls less on the Thorns and Courage, who even with the losses of Henry and Nadim for the former, look likely to impress once again next year.
The emergence of players such as Taylor Smith have been a huge benefit to the Courage, while Sam Lewis and McCall Zerboni in the midfield were arguably the best duo in the league. The draft class of 2015 is still getting better within Paul Riley’s side, and with a few additions, the Courage could be playing in another final next year, and a third in a row for some of their players.
For the Thorns, the club is a big pull, one of the biggest in the world. The fanbase is incredible and the setup second to none in the US. Losing Henry and Nadim is a blow, but not a disaster. The defence has been magnificent, while Christine Sinclair, who won her fourth US title with this victory, is like a fine wine that gets better with age. They have a young, enthusiastic coach who will continue to strive for better, and with a few additions, much like the Courage, could be back in the Championship Game next season and repeat the back-to-back finals between the Reign and FC Kansas City.