After 24 regular season games per team and two semi-final tilts last weekend, we've arrived at the final match of the 2017 NWSL season. The North Carolina Courage will host the Portland Thorns in a clash of the league's top seeded teams on Saturday afternoon in Orlando. Head over to Lifetime TV at 4:30PM Eastern for all the action.
The North Carolina Courage
Last year's Champions, the Western New York Flash, were sold and relocated in the offseason to North Carolina, where they'd take the field as the all-new North Carolina Courage. Though technically the Courage aren't preparing to defend their champion status because they're technically not the same team (according to the league), the roster and coaches look awfully familiar, and most fans aren't going to get hung up on lame technicalities. Besides, any honest conversation about this Courage team has to involve the memory of an improbable last gasp draw secured in extra time that led to a penalty shoot-out that the Flash would win to secure the title.
Remember this? (Look away, Spirit fans.)
The Flash's opponents in the 2016 Championship were the Washington Spirit. That side saw the crushing disappointment of a loss on PKs turn into an offseason of high-profile player departures, which then turned into a season of impossibly unlucky injuries. Seconds from winning the league in 2016, the Spirit dropped all the way to the bottom of the table this season.
That just makes the Courage's achievement all the more impressive. There was no victory hangover—rather, the team improved over 2016, winning more matches, earning the NWSL Shield and the #1 seed for the playoffs. Following the sale (that came with very little warning), players moved from Buffalo to Cary, NC (a seriously different place) during a period in which many athletes and professional leagues were outspoken critics of North Carolina's "bathroom bill" HB2. Though the bill was partially repealed in March of 2017, there was still some question as to how welcoming North Carolina would be for a team and league with a very active, vocal and concerned LGBTQ (and allies) portion of the fanbase. The politics and arc of societal progress is imperfect, but the women's soccer fans have certainly shown up in force, with more than 10,000 in the stands last weekend to cheer their side to a last minute win over the Chicago Red Stars.
The new Courage front office found a way to maintain continuity with the coaching staff, retaining Paul Riley and Scott Vallow after a short period of uncertainty. They've assembled a team filled with young talent and veteran winners. So far, so good. Just one game to go.
The Portland Thorns
If any team (other than the Spirit, obviously) was stewing at the end of 2016, it was the Thorns. They'd somehow squandered a chance to win at home, surrendering two goals to Lynn Williams in extra time and only able to field one from Lindsey Horan after managing a 2-2 draw in 90 minutes. More than 20k fans packed in Providence Park had to absorb the reality that they'd need to wait until 2017 to have a chance to celebrate a championship with their Thorns.
This year, there was no semi-final stumble. The Thorns brushed aside a hopeful Orlando Pride squad 4-1 in a game that didn't feel even that competitive. With the loss, Orlando suffered the further insult of having to watch the team that eliminated them play for a title on their own home field in just one week's time. For the Thorns, the final matchup will provide an opportunity to exorcise their 2016 semi-finals demons, even if the crest on their opponents' shirts will look different.
Though they had some inconsistency early in the year, the Thorns have been a powerful force for most of the season. They traded 1-0 home wins with the Courage, but have looked better and better as the year has progressed. Now, they've got Tobin Heath back in the fold after she missed almost the entire season with a back injury.
Two important parts of the team will be playing their final matches with the Thorns on Saturday. French international midfielder Amandine Henry will return to France to play for Olympique Lyonnais Féminin (OL or Lyon), and Afghanistan native and Denmark international forward Nadia Nadim has signed for Manchester City in England's FA WSL. They've been big parts of why the Thorns have seen so much success, and it will be interesting to see who steps into their roles next year. Both women were disappointed at the 2017 UEFA Women's EURO tournament this summer. They'll want to help guide the Thorns to an NWSL title on their way out the door.
You can't really go down the rosters of these teams and find much in the way of weakness. There's some inexperience, but it's outweighed by the confidence that's been built throughout the 2017 season. The Courage won 16 games, and the Thorns won 14. Both sides know how to win.
When crosses for Sinclair don't work for the Thorns, they shoot Hayley Raso out of a canon on a long ball from Henry. If she gets closed down, she locates an unmarked Sinclair or Nadim arriving at the top of the box.
The Courage have similar options. If Lynn Williams isn't finding her way through, there's Ashley Hatch darting into space. Mewis and Zerboni have excellent eyes for down-field runs and can land a ball in the perfect spot for a streaking Hamilton or Williams or McDonald to slot home.
These are the two best set-piece teams in the league, but Abby Dahlkemper's service for NC is just a joy to watch, especially if Sam Mewis is rising to find it. They're dangerous from anywhere in the attacking half. Of course, Portland's Emily Sonnett has a knack for getting on the end of corners and free kicks, and she's got a great record for scoring in the NWSL post season.
The midfields are both stacked with world-class talent. Portland had a way of under-performing (read: not just simply dominating everyone) at times this year, and the Courage can play a bit narrow at times, providing space to be worked around (Tobin Heath doesn't need much room on the wing to operate). However, both sides are good at making adjustments based on what they're facing and it's uncommon to see either group disrupted for too long. I've seen the Thorns midfield get occasionally flustered under a high press this year, and though they're physically stout players, they don't necessarily play a particularly physically aggressive style. The Courage do, at times, ramp up the physicality, and I'd be surprised if they're not the more physical team early in the match if for no other reason than to see how the Thorns respond.
I'm really looking forward to this game, and I've had a very hard time deciding how I think it's going to go. These are both great sides, and it's going to be a treat to watch them battle it out for the title. Both sides were in Boston twice this year where I had a chance to watch them up close, and North Carolina's performances were a bit more impressive. I think they'll be able to repeat last year's heroics and find a way to put one more across the line than the Thorns in a very tight, very enjoyable final game for the 2017 NWSL season.
North Carolina Courage 3-2 Portland Thorns
I don't know what "it" is, but they've got it.