The NWSL schedule served up a clash between the two best NWSL teams over recent years: the Portland Thorns and North Carolina Courage. These sides, who battled for the NWSL Championship last season, were looking to get to the top of the league with a win. Portland’s last game was a recent loss to the Reign while the Courage had beaten Washington.

This tactical analysis will look at Portland’s 2-1 victory. The analysis will detail the tactics of both sides and how the Thorns managed to grab the top spot in the NWSL standings.

The lineups

Portland Thorns (4-2-3-1): Franch – Ball, Sonnet, Menges, Reynolds – Horan, Brynjarsdóttir – Charley, Sinclair, Heath – Foord

Mark Parsons set up the Thorns in their usual 4-2-3-1 formation. Three changes were made from their recent loss to the Reign. Dagný Brynjarsdóttir returned to the double-pivot as Gabby Seiler made way. Midge Purce went to the bench as Caitlin Foord claimed the lone striker position. And finally, Simone Charley joined Tobin Heath and Christine Sinclair in support of Foord, with Hayley Raso stepping out.

North Carolina Courage(4-2-2-2): Labbe – Mathias, Dahlkemper, Erceg, Hinkle – O’Sullivan, Mewis – Debinha, Dunn – Williams, Hamilton

Paul Riley, on the other hand, sent the Courage out in a 4-2-2-2 formation. Numerous personnel changes were made from their game against the Washington Spirit. Abby Dahlkemper joined Abby Erceg at the heart of the defence as Kaleigh Kurtz went to the bench. Samantha Mewis was back to partner Denise O’Sullivan in the midfield two, replacing Cari Roccaro. Crystal Dunn and Lynn Williams came in to form the attacking options alongside Debinha and Kristen Hamilton. McCall Zerboni and Leah Pruitt were the two to fall out.

Early Courage pressure

In the early stages of the game, North Carolina kept the ball well and maintained good periods of possession. The Thorns were content to sit back and soak up most of the early pressure. Because of this, Portland were forced to mainly counter-attack which wasn’t a fruitful tactic early on. And whenever they did progress the ball up the field, the Courage would be dangerous in transition when they regained possession. North Carolina then took the lead from excellent play in transition and constantly threatened thereafter.

North Carolina in possession

The presence of the two strikers upfront meant that the entire Portland backline could be occupied. Clever positioning and movement by the two could have four players accounted for. This has several benefits. When building from the back, North Carolina would have their fullbacks advance up the pitch. Since the Portland fullbacks have to be wary of the strikers, the wingers would have to track back and mark the fullback. This would pin the wingers, Charley and Heath, deep in their own half, limiting their threat going forward.

NWSL 2019: Portland Thorns vs North Carolina Courage – tactical analysis tactics
Entire Portland side in their own half behind the ball. Wingers, Charley and Heath, are highlighted.

Usually, the fullbacks would move in line with the double-pivot of Mewis and O’Sullivan. At times, it’ll only be one of them as the other would position themselves higher up the pitch.

NWSL 2019: Portland Thorns vs North Carolina Courage – tactical analysis tactics
Mewis advances to join Dunn and Debinha between the lines. O’Sullivan will assist the centrebacks in building up.

Other times, one of Dunn or Debinha would drop deep into midfield to ease the pressure when building up. This would be a cue for the fullbacks to charge forward and offer an option out wide.

NWSL 2019: Portland Thorns vs North Carolina Courage – tactical analysis tactics
Dunn is highlighted. She dropped into midfield in line with Mewis and O’Sullivan. Mathias made the run forward on the righthand side.
NWSL 2019: Portland Thorns vs North Carolina Courage – tactical analysis tactics
Dunn drops to receive the ball behind Portland’s first line. She can immediately turn and use her pace to get past any midfield pressure.

To find players forward between the lines, the Courage would have Dunn and Debinha draw closer to overload the midfield. At times, even being orientated to a particular side of the pitch. If Portland didn’t react to this then North Carolina could progress the ball into central areas easily. But if they were to have one their wingers or defenders support the midfield then this opened up space for runs by their strikers and fullbacks.

NWSL 2019: Portland Thorns vs North Carolina Courage – tactical analysis tactics
Dunn again between the lines to receive the ball. Debinha is highlighted in close proximity to overload the righthand side. Dunn can turn and it’s an immediate three-vs-three situation.

In the final third, the front four of North Carolina were a picture of constant movement and positional rotations. This was effective as Hamilton and Williams are comfortable with the ball out wide while Dunn and Debinha are both capable goal-scorers in and around the box. This made them difficult to keep track of and Portland struggled all game to deal with them.

Portland on the ball

North Carolina would aggressively press Portland to try to get the ball back from Portland. This caused Portland plenty of problems and as previously stated, they struggled to maintain possession early on. But even when they managed to keep the ball for sustained periods, they weren’t able to threaten the final third as effectively as North Carolina did. But as the game wore on, they slowly grew into the contest in this regard. Portland would also have their fullbacks up the pitch during the build-up.

Since the 4-2-2-2 defensive shape of North Carolina was quite narrow, the Thorns could have players out wide in more space. And once they were past the first line of the Courage press, they had the numbers to penetrate centrally as well. Generally, their play in the wide areas brought the most success.

NWSL 2019: Portland Thorns vs North Carolina Courage – tactical analysis tactics
Horan plays the long ball to Ball who is free during the narrow North Carolina press.

They would attract the North Carolina shape to one side and then switch the play to the opposite winger in space. They used short passes to shift the North Carolina shape to free the opposite winger. And they also employed direct long balls to one side of the field. If they won the second ball then they could immediately shift the point of attack. Once out wide, combination play with midfielders and fullbacks helped them retain possession as well as create opportunities.

NWSL 2019: Portland Thorns vs North Carolina Courage – tactical analysis tactics
Portland finding a player between the lines. And there are acres of space in midfield with the first line of pressure, Williams and Hamilton, behind the play.
NWSL 2019: Portland Thorns vs North Carolina Courage – tactical analysis tactics
The ball is eventually worked to Horan with most of the Courage shape on to the right. She plays a one-two with Foord to get free. She immediately sends it out wide to Heath in space.
NWSL 2019: Portland Thorns vs North Carolina Courage – tactical analysis tactics
Heath with plenty of space to run into the box where she can shoot or deliver a cross.

Portland changes

The introduction of Purce and Raso at halftime for Charley and Foord changed their offensive fortunes. Their work in transition and the final third was greatly improved. The pair’s fresh legs brought dynamism and energy that made the contest much more even as they threatened the Courage more often.

Both of Portland’s goals came from crosses out wide. After their corner was cleared, they win a duel to get the ball to Ball. She then delivers the cross that leads to the first own goal by Labbe. At this stage, the game began to move back and forth with both teams able to progress the ball, build attacks and create chances frequently. Portland also began to press more aggressively once they equalised. They would allow the Courage midfielders to receive possession and then press them to win the ball back.

NWSL 2019: Portland Thorns vs North Carolina Courage – tactical analysis tactics
The Portland Thorns with an aggressive press after the equaliser. As soon as O’Sullivan received the ball, the press was triggered. Portland eventually win the ball off of Zerboni.

The third goal of the game, came from Portland winning the ball off Dahlkemper and the ball breaking to Sinclair out wide. Her cross led to the Erceg own goal and eventual game-winner.


North Carolina will be disappointed to have only gone a goal up during the opening exchanges. And while Portland were dominated, to begin with, they eventually turned it around and it became the end-to-end competitive fixture that was anticipated. And in the end, wastefulness in front of goal and defensive errors cost the visitors. They now fall to third in the standings, while Portland climbs to first place. They are separated by two points and have Chicago sandwiched between them. There is also the Reign not far behind in fourth. The NWSL season is producing a truly enthralling battle for the regular season prize. And games such as these not only help settle that race but also double-up as playoff previews.

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Julian Chingoma