Portland, Oregon — No team has beaten the North Carolina Courage on the road this season. No NWSL team has ever won more games, earned more points, scored more, or allowed fewer goals than the Courage. But, on Saturday when the Courage face Portland Thorns FC in the 2018 NWSL Championship at Providence Park, the Courage feel like the underdogs.
“I always say this, but there is nothing better than hearing the dead silence of a home crowd,” Courage forward Lynn Williams said as both the Courage and Thorns took part in Media Day ahead on Thursday. “And I think that’s our mentality going into Saturday. Between the hurricane and not getting our home-field advantage [in the semifinal], and then coming here, playing a game and now having three days less rest than them [Portland], and they are actually on their home ground – We are the underdogs.”
The Courage, despite becoming the best American women’s professional soccer team in history per their points per game average of 2.375, feel like their backs are against the wall. There is something about Providence Park – whether that be the chants that erupt the stands or the red Thorns jerseys that bleed throughout — that can make even the very best of teams nervous. But, while nerves are most certainly present, more than that, it’s the edge that the Courage feel like they have gained from this final stretch of the season.
The Courage lost one of their best midfielders, MVP finalist McCall Zerboni, to a broken elbow that she suffered in the U.S. national team’s win over Chile on September 4. After that, the Courage had their home semifinal game moved from North Carolina due to Hurricane Florence. The game was shifted to Providence Park on Tuesday, where the Courage shutout the Chicago Red Stars 2-0 to advance to the championship. The Thorns defeated Seattle Reign FC 2-1 on that Saturday to punch their ticket to the final. The Courage and Thorns will now meet in a rematch of the 2017 NWSL Championship, which was won by the Thorns.
“I think we play our best when we feel like our backs are against a wall a bit,” Williams said. Williams led the Courage in scoring this season with 14 goals, good for runner-up in the Golden Boot. Teammate midfielder Elizabeth Eddy said she thinks playing away gives her side — which went 8-0-4 on the road in the regular season — an “edge.”
“Not that you need an edge, but [this is] something extra to fight against and use to bond together. It’s this us against the world mentality – like bring it, nothing is stopping us!”
Midfielder Sam Mewis, who scored the Courage’s second goal on Tuesday night, finishing an upper-90 blast from outside the box said, “I think that this sense of being underdogs goes back to 2016 when we were the Western New York Flash and Paul [Riley] came in and we hadn’t had a great season the year before and went on to win it.” The WNY Flash, before being sold and relocated to North Carolina after that season, defeated the Washington Spirit in penalty kicks to win the 2016 NWSL Championship.
“I think the core of this team has kept this feeling. We train like underdogs, we always have kept this sense that it’s us against the world.”
The Courage will also be up against the “Curse of the Shield” – no NWSL Shield winner has ever won the NWSL Championship in five NWSL seasons. The Courage claimed this year’s Shield with a record-breaking 17 wins and 57 points, but will face a team that has never lost in the NWSL Championship, earning the crest in 2013 and 2017. The Thorns enter this weekend’s game in peak form – they finished the regular season in second place with an overall record of 12-6-6 and 42 points. The Thorns are undefeated in their last six games – with their last loss coming against the Courage on August 5.
“They have been fantastic all season. I kind of think the pressure is on them to win a championship with everything they have done this season,” Thorns midfielder Tobin Heath said. “I have said it all year that we’re a championship team, and we’re built for these moments, and it’s one game. I say it too, you learn a lot from your losses. We’ve played them three times and we’ve lost, and from that we’ve learned.”
Heath scored the Thorns’ equalizer against the Reign on Saturday and has eight goals and seven assists this season. Heath mentioned that her side has yet to beat the Courage since last year’s Championship – the Courage won all three times vs. the Thorns this season; by a scoreline of 1-0 on March 24, 4-1 on May 30 and, most recently, 2-1 on August 5.
The last time the Courage played against the Thorns at Providence Park, the silence Williams mentioned she loves hearing on the road was most certainly heard that evening in May. Williams scored twice, and Mewis and midfielder Debinha also chipped in a goal each.
“We’re going to get booed and it’s fine. We know it’s coming,” Williams said. “You’re not going to hear your teammates very well, or your coaches, but you know what — we’re just going to have to give it our all.”