Courage crush Thorns
There was some mighty fine soccer played at Providence Park on Wednesday.
None of it, though, was produced by the Portland Thorns.
Defending National Women's Soccer League champion North Carolina delivered a resounding statement, crushing Portland 6-0.
The worst loss in Thorns history was witnessed by 17,517 fans and showed that Portland has a lot of questions to answer if it wants to unseat the reigning champions.
North Carolina improved to 11-4-4 (37 points) to jump over Portland into first place. The Thorns are 10-5-6 (36).
That one-point difference is misleading, since the Courage have played two fewer games than Portland.
"I'm pretty sure everyone here wants to win another championship. But we all need to decide that together," said Thorns defender Katherine Reynolds, who started in place of suspended Emily Sonnett. "That was just unacceptable tonight, and we can never have a performance like that again if we want to be champions."
Lynn Williams scored three goals, Debinha opened the scoring in the 15th minute and had three assists and Crystal Dunn had a goal and assist in the impressive Courage performance. Substitute Kristen Hamilton added a goal in the 89th minute to cap the thumping.
The Courage smothered the Thorns with their up-field pressure and used some beautiful one-touch passing to scorch Portland.
Coach Paul Riley's team is known for pressuring opponents in the defensive third, and his team put on a clinic in that regard for long stretches.
A point of emphasis for Riley entering the game was to make Portland's Lindsey Horan defend and to limit touches for Christine Sinclair and Tobin Heath. With Debinha, Sam Mewis and Denise O'Sullivan dominating the midfield and with Merritt Mathias paying special attention to Heath, the Courage kept the Thorns looking for answers.
"It was the most complete performance we've had all season," said Riley, who coached the Thorns in 2014 and 2015.
Thorns coach Mark Parsons gave credit to North Carolina for one of the best performances the league has seen in a long time. Then he pointed at himself as the first one to blame for the subpar performance, saying that "tactical, game prep, physical, mental, emotional, it was probably down there at the very, very worst (performance). It would be easy to say sluggish on the physical side. We were just way behind everywhere. In all areas, we were way off."
This isn't a one-off result, though.
The Courage have won three of the last four games against the Thorns at Providence Park, including the 3-0 victory in last season's NWSL championship match. They have outscored the Thorns 13-3 in those four games, and two of Portland's goals were North Carolina own-goals this season that gave Portland a 2-1 win here on Aug. 11.
"We seem to like playing here. We seem to do alright in this stadium," Riley said. "I think (the players) enjoy the noise in the crowd and the spirit. I think they're inspired to play some of their best football."
The Courage certainly did that on Wednesday. All six goals were well-taken finishes from the run of play that didn't give Thorns goalkeeper Adrianna Franch a chance.
Portland had a few chances, including a scramble in front of goal just seconds after Debinha's opener that might have altered the energy on the field.
Horan had a header that just missed late in the first half from a Meghan Klingenberg cross.
In the opening seconds after halftime, a cross into the box nearly found Horan in front of the goal, and the ball wound up with Heath, whose shot forced one of goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe's two saves.
But the Thorns were nowhere close to matching the energy or the quality delivered by the Courage. And when they had the ball, the Thorns couldn't find a quick switch of the field needed to make the Courage react and perhaps disrupt North Carolina's positioning.
The best news for the Thorns is they don't play again for nine days, a break they look like they need.
The challenge ahead for Portland in its final three games will be trying to finish in second place and earn home field for the semifinals.
The Thorns are one point ahead of third-place Chicago, which scored a stoppage-time goal to beat Orlando 1-0 on Wednesday. Utah (31 points) and Reign FC (30), both with two games in hand, also are within striking distance of passing Portland if things go badly for the Thorns.
Portland's remaining games are Sept. 21 at home against Houston, Sept. 29 at Reign FC and Oct. 12 at home against Washington.
Chicago plays Sunday at Sky Blue, Sept. 21 at home against Washington and Sept. 28 against Utah.
North Carolina is in the midst of a challenging stretch. The Courage play at home on Saturday against Orlando and next Tuesday against Houston. But the Pride and Dash are two of the weakest teams in the league, giving North Carolina an opportunity to take command at the top of the standings.
Based on Wednesday's command performance, that's just when the Courage belong.
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