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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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