Even before the 2017 NWSL season kicked off, the the North Carolina Courage and the Portland Thorns were exceedingly common picks to make this year’s final. It made perfect sense: North Carolina, in their previous identity as the Western New York Flash, won last year’s title by breaking the Washington Spirit’s hearts with last-gasp goal and penalty kicks, while the Thorns won last year’s NWSL Shield and appeared to be improved for this year. Both sides are littered with USWNT and international stars.
Today in Florida, WoSo fans everywhere are hoping all of those promising ingredients add up to a classic.
Location: Orlando City Stadium (Orlando, FL)
Kickoff time: 4:30pm Eastern
Projected Courage starting 11:
The real question isn’t so much who will start for Paul Riley, but how he’ll set his team up. In their last three games that didn’t involve major rotation to rest players, NC has played three different formations (4231, 442 diamond, and 4132). Riley has also succeeded with a more standard flat 442, an empty bucket 442, and has also used a three-back. Any 442 variant will likely see Ashley Hatch join Lynn Williams up front.
With Debinha confirmed as out after dislocating her elbow early in last week’s semifinal, North Carolina is missing one oft-used sub. If Denise O’Sullivan runs out of gas, or if Riley wants to shift into a more direct approach, he can send in Jess McDonald. McDonald can play a few different roles, and also has a long throw-in that is a genuine threat anywhere within 35 yards of the endline. Winger Makenzy Doniak is also very likely to come in as a sub regardless of how the game plays out, and she’ll add speed (as if the Courage need more of that).
How they’ll play: Fast, relentless, and to the point. The Courage are a buzz saw. They have speed and strength all over the field, and Riley has wisely built his tactical approach around the fact that his team is the most athletic in the NWSL. NC wants to attack at a high tempo, and they rely on the outstanding midfield combination of Samantha Mewis and McCall Zerboni to feed the machine by forcing turnovers and keeping the speed of play high.
Projected Thorns starting 11:
Mark Parsons has had success sticking with this set-up, which is somewhere between a 3412 and 343 and features no natural, out-and-out striker. Earlier this year, Portland played out of a more traditional 4231, but they’ve been unquestionably better with Christine Sinclair starting between the lines and then looking to get into the box from deep rather than starting her up front. In many cases, right forward Hayley Raso (who, along with Parsons and defender Katherine Reynolds, were all with the Spirit in 2015) will end up as the player leading the line.
You may also notice that some big names on the Thorns roster aren’t in the lineup. Nadia Nadim is no longer starting now that Tobin Heath has recovered from the back injury that kept her out for nearly the entire season, but is a near-lock to play as a sub in her final game with the club before heading to England (where she’ll join Manchester City).
Meanwhile, USWNT midfielder Allie Long ended up being the odd woman out due to the move away from the 4231. Long is just a bit redundant on a team that features Amandine Henry and Lindsey Horan, who are both among the world’s very best. However, she is likely to be a fresh legs sub for Henry, who like Nadim is heading to Europe (Olympique Lyon in this case) after the season ends.
How they’ll play: No one would characterize Portland as conservative, but they’re certainly more patient than the Courage. The Thorns are willing to hold possession and wait a team out if necessary, and they tend to high-press only in phases rather than as an all-out plan. Despite lacking anyone in a true #9 role, Meghan Klingenberg’s crosses from the left are a major source of assists and key passes. The Thorns are also in great form defensively having conceded just 3 goals in their last 7 games.
Referee: Danielle Chesky
Available TV: Lifetime
What are you drinking?: Talked about cognac with some friends as I was working on this piece, so I expect it’ll be time for Courvoisier VS on the rocks when this game gets going.
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