The Portland Thorns won their second-ever NWSL Championship today in Orlando, defeating the North Carolina Courage 1-0. Lindsay Horan’s 50th minute goal was the deciding factor in a game short on chances and high on physical play. The two top defensive teams in the league largely canceled each other out, with the Thorns ultimately capitalizing on the only moment either team let their guard down.
Neither team produced a surprise in terms of their lineups or formations. Instead, the surprise was that the game emphasized physicality and little else throughout the first half. Courage right back Taylor Smith was badly fouled by Tobin Heath barely a minute into the game, and while she tried to play through the resulting shoulder injury, the USWNT hopeful had to be replaced by the 12th minute. Heath was not given a booking by referee Danielle Chesky for the incident, though she was eventually given a 41st minute yellow card.
The hard tackles kept coming, with Portland doling out most of the rough stuff in the first 30 minutes before North Carolina started responding in kind. Kristen Hamilton, who moved into Smith’s spot after the former’s early injury, also had to leave the game injured in the 39th minute. Elsewhere, Makenzy Doniak appeared to get away with a two-footed challenge on Heath late in the half, while earlier Lindsey Horan only got a talking-to for a hip check on McCall Zerboni.
The first half’s only noteworthy scoring chance was an extremely unlikely one. Samantha Mewis latched onto a loose ball in the center circle in the 14th minute, and picked her head up to spot Portland goalkeeper Adrianna Franch off her line. Mewis took aim from 55 yards, beating Franch easily only to be denied by the crossbar.
Five minutes into the second half, though, Portland would get themselves out in front. An Emily Sonnett free kick from midfield drew Amandine Henry and Abby Dahlkemper in an attempt to win it in the air. Neither made contact, and the ball bounced on to Horan. Wide open at the back post, the USWNT midfielder made no mistake, lashing a volley past Rowland to give the Thorns the lead.
Lynn Williams had two promising shots well saved by Franch, one just before the Thorns opener and one about ten minutes after. Portland responded with some token pressure in the 71st minute that nearly salted the game away. Katelyn Rowland came out to clear with her feet, but substitute Nadia Nadim’s pressure seemed to freeze her up. Nadim and Rowland collided over the ball, before Nadim’s eventual hurried shot hit Rowland in the chest. It was lucky for North Carolina that the ball didn’t strike an arm, as Rowland appeared to be outside of the box making the awkward save.
The Thorns, despite a brief injury scare for Heath, were mostly successful at managing the game for long spells at 1-0. There was little in the way of enterprising play, but Portland was willing to keep possession whenever possible and, under pressure, simply played long or wide.
An 82nd minute mistake from Emily Menges nearly gave Jess McDonald a golden chance to level the scores. McDonald’s pressure saw Menges fail to take a touch in the box. McDonald’s first touch let her down, though, and she didn’t have enough room to escape Menges, who recovered from her error to dive in and block McDonald’s eventual shot attempt.
The Courage were forced into thumping long balls into the area, with McDonald (after recovering from a painful landing moments before) heading the ball into a promising spot in the area. Sadly for North Carolina, the ball fell behind Williams, and no one in blue was on hand to turn it into a shot.
In the end, Franch’s ability to claim crosses and Portland’s team-wide ability to win aerial battles deep in their own box managed to keep North Carolina away from having any real looks in the late going, and the Thorns — who gave up just 20 goals in the regular season, and posted five shutouts in their final eight games of the season — rode their defensive strength to victory.