The NWSL championship game was rightly hyped as a matchup of teams loaded with U.S. national team stars.
Naturally, it was decided by fouls and a fluky goal.
The North Carolina Courage lost to the Portland Thorns, 1-0, thanks to Lindsey Horan’s close-range finish of a redirected free kick early in the second half.
The game, played before an announced crowd of 8,124 at Orlando City Stadium, was physical from the start.
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Within two minutes of kickoff, Portland’s Tobin Heath decked Courage right back Taylor Smith, causing an injury to Smith’s right shoulder. She tried to grit out the pain, but it proved too much and she was subbed out after just 12 minutes.
“I’m surprised Portland played that way in the first half – it’s not that type of team,” Courage coach Paul Riley said. “I’d rather see the players play than kick people, but they chose the latter.”
Indeed, Portland has great creators in Heath, Horan and others. But they rarely showed it in this game.
Courage midfielder Samantha Mewis, howver, showed some great skill in the 14th minute. She chipped goalkeeper Adrianna Franch from 35 yards, but the ball hit the crossbar.
Just when North Carolina was starting to regularly poke holes in Portland’s five-player back line, another Courage injury forced Riley to burn his second of three available subs after just 39 minutes.
Kristen Hamilton, who had moved from midfield to the back line when Smith exited, left after a collision with Heath.
“They got into us, and that looked like it was their game plan, and unfortunately it did knock us out of our rhythm,” Riley said.
The second half was more open. In the 47th minute, Lynn Williams forced a save from Franch that sent a rebound to a wide-open McDonald, but she whiffed on the shot.
With that bit of good luck in hand, Portland scored three minutes later. Courage defender Abby Dahlkemper misjudged a service from Portland’s Emily Sonnett, and the ball fell to a wide-open Horan 6 yards from the goal for an easy finish.
North Carolina pushed for the equalizer but couldn’t break through. Mewis shot right at Franch in the 79th minute, McDonald was blocked near the goal in the 82nd and Franch caught a Mewis header at the left post in second-half stoppage time.
The loss meant the Courage failed in its attempt to become the first NWSL team ever to record the best regular-season record and win the championship. It has never happened in the league’s five-history.
“It was a bummer,” Mewis said. “I think we’re going to be really motivated for next year, and I give Portland a lot of credit.”