Most will attest, that very few things in life are certain. Death and taxes probably being the exceptions. But you could be forgiven for thinking that the North Carolina Courage winning the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup would be one of them. I know I certainly did. In fact, I penned a piece for this very publication detailing why. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Today a plucky Portland Thorns outfit, toppled the tournament favourites 1-0 courtesy of a well-taken Morgan Weaver strike. Clearly my predictions are like an Orlando Pride stan. Cursed.
North Carolina came out of the blocks quickly, in a game they dominated in all honesty. Lynn Williams drove down the left-hand side in typically robust fashion. The forward's low ball narrowly avoided the on-rushing Kristen Hamilton. Portland were left off the hook. Still, it was a positive start for Paul Riley's team.
Another chance for the Courage on 5 minutes. A good team move culminated in the enigmatic Debinha weaving her way forward, before finding Crystal Dunn. Dunn released Williams with an instinctive through ball. The American cut inside before uncharacteristically lashing the ball over the bar. A sign of things to come, on an ultimately frustrating afternoon for the Courage.
Portland began to settle into the game from here on out. You got the feeling that the Courage’s fast paced start had caught them off balance. Portland began to pop the ball around nicely, as they seemed to grow in confidence. A clever ball over the top from Abby Erceg released Lindsey Horan who teased her way into the area, before cutting the ball back towards Tyler Lussi. North Carolina were able to close down the shot and clear their lines. Mark Parsons will have undoubtedly been pleased to see such a positive reaction from his team.
North Carolina were still looking to break on Portland at any given opportunity, however. Williams saw a shot charged down on 12 minutes. Before Debinha, a few moments later, expertly lifted the ball over a defender’s head after chasing a long ball. The playmaker then found Sam Mewis on the edge of the box, who sent her shot just wide.
The frenetic pace of the game died down somewhat until the 27th minute. Williams stung the palms of Challenge Cup debutant Britt Eckerstrom in the Portland goal. A few moments later the 'keeper was at work again, with a fingertip save to deny a goal bound effort from Debinha. You got the sense the Courage were starting to turn the scree again. Debinha was denied again, on 33 minutes. She jinxed her way into the area before seeing her low shot palmed away. The Portland goal was starting to live a charmed life. You have to commend Portland’s custodian though. She looked assured throughout the entirety of this game, and will have definitely given her coach something to think about.
As the game ticked towards the break Williams again went close, dragging her shot just wide. Angela Salem went close for the Thorns just before the half. As did Hamilton for the Courage, as Eckerstrom beat out her right footed attempt. The game was delicately poised at the break, but you could only really see one winner. And it wasn’t the team who won. Spoiler alert. #DontSpoilTheEndgame. Bonus points if you get that particular pop culture reference.
The first 10 minutes of the second half were a decidedly more cagey affair. Lynn Williams tested Eckerstrom from distance, and Weaver floated a header harmlessly in to Katelyn Rowland's midriff. Rowland, deputising for Stephanie Labbé between the sticks, dealt with the attempt comfortably.
The Courage were growing visibly frustrated, as they attempted to claw their way into the lead. Debinha was again denied by Eckerstrom, as the Thorns stopper got down low to her right to keep out the Brazilian’s goal bound header. It was a miss they would live to regret as well. Minutes later Raquel Rodriguez picked up the ball in the Courage penalty area, swivelled and delivered a delectable ball across the 6-yard box for Weaver to sweep home. Pandemonium from the Thorns bench. A real smash and grab goal.
The Courage suddenly had a mountain to climb. Jess McDonald came in on her return from injury, nearly crowning her appearance with a goal as she deftly flicked the ball goal ward with her head. Eckerstrom continued to come out on top in her personal duel with Debinha. The Brazilian hit a sweetly struck free-kick, which the Thorns 'keeper palmed around the post at full stretch.
As the Courage frantically searched for a leveller a fine double save to deny substitute Celeste Boureille. There was still time for one big Courage chance. Debinha, one on one with Eckerstrom. And again the 'keeper came up clutch. You just know Eckerstrom isn’t on Debinha's Christmas card list after this encounter. She then denied Hailie Mace on the follow up for good measure.
North Carolina Courage
Rowland -7- Probably should do better for the goal, but was hopelessly exposed by her colleagues. Smart double save late on.
Daniels -6- Didn’t affect the game much offensively.
Erceg -6- Didn’t have a whole lot to do, but caught napping for the goal.
Dahlkemper -6- See above, to be honest.
Merrick -7- Dependable performance, nothing more.
Dunn -7- Lively performance, created some decent chances for Williams.
Debinha -8- Aside from Eckerstrom she was the best player on the field.
O'Sullivan -6- Probably should do better to cut out the pull back from Rodriguez.
Hamilton -6- Tested Eckerstrom, but should have done better with that chance.
Williams -7- Lively, but just wasn’t her day.
Mace -6- Unlucky with one attempt, wasn’t in for very long.
McDonald -6- Clearly lacking in fitness, this defeat is an untimely.one for her in particular.
Eckerstrom -9- Veritable behemoth in the Portland goal. Woman of the match for me.
Reynolds -7- Solid performance amidst an onslaught from the opposition prior to her untimely exit.
Menges -7- Patrolled the line well, didn’t put a foot wrong.
Hubly -7- Commanding performance. Integral for the Thorns.
Meghan Klingenberg -7- Got up and down the line well. Experienced defender provided a cool head throughout.
Salem -8- Her experience is invaluable to this team. Her leadership qualities really shine through.
Horan -7- Didn’t see as much of the ball as she would’ve liked, but was her usual industrious self when she did have it.
Rodriguez -8- Lovely assist for the goal, looked lively throughout.
Sinclair -7- Led the line well.
Lussi -7- Worked the lines well, and operated the channels which is an important job for this team.
Weaver -7- Game winning goal, proper poachers finish.
Boureille -7- Nearly capped off a great day's work with the second.
Charley -7- Provided good energy on the defensive side of the ball.
Pogarch -6- Not enough time to really affect the game. Chased well.
Seller -6- Wasn’t in the game long, but did what was required.
Westphal -7- Deputised well.
By Dan Berridge