NCC vs Thorns: The Opener
Where? Zions Bank Stadium, Utah
When? Saturday, June 27th 10.30am MDT, 12:30pm ET, 9.30am PT, 5:30pm GMT
How can I watch? CBS and CBS All Access for residents of the United States and Canada. Twitch live and on demand for international viewers.
As we stand on the precipice of the NWSL Challenge Cup, the league could not have hoped for a better way to *ahem* get the ball rolling. These two clubs share an intense rivalry, and are considered by many to be the flag bearers for US club soccer. The Courage, with their particular brand of expansive football. And the Thorns, with their fanatical fan base, are the two most successful clubs in the league just now.
Paul Riley’s Courage will be looking to hit the ground running; particularly after winning their second successive championship last season. The Courage were 15-4-5 last season, scoring a league leading 54 goals along the way. The Courage are like a battering ram, they have a roster stacked with talent and favour the high press. They play to win, and do so with high energy. They also led the league in shots on goal. They are many people’s favourites for the tournament.
The Thorns meanwhile were 11-7-6, finishing 3rd in the regular season. Before a disappointing 1-0 reverse at the hands of the Chicago Red Stars in the post-season play-offs. It will be interesting to see how this team lines up for this tournament. Will they play with 3 at the back, and give their wing-backs more license to attack? Particularly in the absence of Tobin Heath (more on that shortly). They will also have to adapt to playing without their partisan home support, which is often a 12th player for the team.
Portland may be without one of their star draft picks, Sophia Smith, as she is currently not training after taking a ’knock’, according to Parsons. They are also definitely sans star forward Heath, as the USWNT legend has opted to withdraw from the tournament due to concerns regarding the on-going Covid-19 pandemic.
The Courage on the other hand haven’t declared any injury concerns or withdrawals (all squads have been confirmed for the tournament), and so are armed with a fully fit roster for the tournament. Aside from, of course, Merritt Mathias (ACL). The Courage did, however, waive forward Leah Pruitt after the USC graduate scored twice in 14 appearances in the NWSL last season.
Overall record Courage v Thorns...
Whilst this matchup has undoubtedly become one of the biggest rivalries in the NWSL, the Courage have held the upper hand overall. In 10 meetings there have been 6 wins for North Carolina, 1 draw and 3 wins for Portland. Notable games include the Courage’s 0-6 demolition of the Thorns at Providence Park in 2019, and the Thorn's narrow 2-1 win at the same venue a month earlier.
The Thorns dud best the Courage in the 2017 Championship final. Mark Parson’s side were able to take their revenge the following season, when they defeated Portland in the 2018 final. The Courage are the reigning NWSL Champions.
Key match ups:
Abby Dahlkemper v Christine Sinclair
Abby Dahlkemper is one of the most established defenders in the league. The Pennsylvania native has over 80 appearances to her name, in this league, and has over 60 caps for the USWNT. At 27 she is arguably entering the prime years of her already distinguished career. Her game time for the Courage was limited last season, owing to the 2019 FIFA World Cup. That being said you can bet she will be a key player in this tournament. Her leadership and defensive solidarity, against the likes of Christine Sinclair, will be crucial if the Courage are to emerge victorious.
On the other side of the coin, Sinclair is just as important to the Thorns as Dahlkemper is to the Courage. Sinclair is the all-time leading goal scorer in international football, across both the men’s and women’s game. The forward chalked up 9 goals in 18 games last season for the Thorns. She is crucial to their success. How she fares without Heath will be a teller. Heath stretches teams defensively, which allows Sinclair to exploit the space.
North Carolina Courage roster
Head coach: Paul Riley
Notable players to have declined: none
Goalkeepers (3): Stephanie Labbé (FED-CAN), Samantha Murphy, Katelyn Rowland
Defenders (11): Lindsay Agnew, Abby Dahlkemper (FED-USA), Jaelene Daniels, Abby Erceg, Hailey Harbison, Kaleigh Kurtz, Hailie Mace, Merritt Mathias (45-Day DL), Addisyn Merrick (CDP), Sinclaire Miramontez (CDP), Ryan Williams
Midfielders (7): Debinha (INT), Crystal Dunn (FED-USA), Samantha Mewis (FED-USA), Lauren Milliet, Denise O'Sullivan (INT), Cari Roccaro, Meredith Speck
Forwards (5): Kristen Hamilton, Jessica McDonald, McKenzie Meehan, Ally Watt (CDP), Lynn Williams
Portland Thorns roster
Head coach: Mark Parsons
Notable players to have declined: Tobin Heath
Goalkeepers (3): Bella Bixby, Britt Eckerstrom, Adrianna Franch (FED-USA)
Defenders (9): Kelli Hubly, Meghan Klingenberg, Emily Menges, Meaghan Nally (CDP), Madison Pogarch, Katherine Reynolds, Becky Sauerbrunn (FED-USA), Autumn Smithers, Christen Westphal
Midfielders (6): Celeste Boureille, Lindsey Horan (FED-USA), Emily Ogle, Rocky Rodríguez (INTL-CRC), Angela Salem, Gabby Seiler
Forwards (7): Simone Charley, Marissa Everett, Tyler Lussi, Anika Rodriguez, Christine Sinclair (FED-CAN), Sophia Smith (CDP), Morgan Weaver (CDP)
By Dan Berridge
Photo Credit: Nikki Flores @ Footy Day Photos