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Courage cap off record-setting season with NWSL Championship win
Jess McDonald and Debinha scored in the NWSL Championship
The Courage beat the Thorns in a rematch of last year's final. (Photo credit:  Craig Mitchelldyer/isiphotos.com)
The Courage beat the Thorns in a rematch of last year's final. (Photo credit: Craig Mitchelldyer/isiphotos.com)

Portland, Oregon — The North Carolina Courage stunned a record-setting crowd of 21,144 at Providence Park, defeating Portland Thorns FC 3-0 to win the 2018 NWSL Championship. The Courage hoisted their third trophy this season after claiming the NWSL Shield and ICC Tournament title earlier this season. The Courage become the first NWSL team to ever win the Shield and also win the NWSL Championship.

Courage forward Jess McDonald was named Most Valuable Player of the match, after scoring twice on the day. Debinha also scored for the Courage.

“It was kind of an all or nothing type of game,” McDonald said after the game, “And we just continued our process this season and the only thing we wanted to do was improve in today’s game and that’s kind of what we did. We put away our chances and that was an incredible thing, and overall it was a great team performance.”

McDonald not only put away her chances, but also created chances on Saturday, finishing with four chances created and eight shots. The veteran finished the year with 10 goals and a league-leading eight assists.

Before McDonald scored her first of the night, Debinha stunned the sea of red at Providence Park with an early goal. Courage forward Crystal Dunn played a dangerous ball through the center of field and into the path of Lynn Williams. Williams was able to break free after center back Emily Menges and Emily Sonnett miscommunicated on the play. Williams’s shot deflected off Menges and hit the crossbar, falling into the path of Debinha, who was able to head it home for the 1-0 lead in the 13th minute.

For the Thorns, they have come from behind in their last two matches after falling behind early. In the NWSL semifinal match vs. Seattle Reign FC, the Thorns trailed by one goal early, but rallied to advance to the championship for the second-straight year. But that was not the case on Saturday afternoon.

In the 29th minute, strong individual work from Christine Sinclair gave the home side one of their best chances on the day, but her shot went just wide. Sinclair finished the match with two shots, and finished the season with nine goals and seven assists.

“Sitting here right now, just not many people get the chance to play a championship game in front of their home fans,” the Thorns captain said in the postgame press conference. “The fans were incredible again today.” The 21,144 in attendance made Saturday’s game the most attended women’s professional soccer championship match in U.S. history.

“But, like Mark [Parsons] said, congrats to North Carolina. They walked through the league this year and they made it very difficult for us today. Going down early, it’s never easy especially against a stingy defense like they have and we just couldn’t create that golden opportunity that we usually do to get us back into the game.”

The Courage set regular season records for wins (17), points (57), most goals scored (53) and fewest goals allowed (17) this season and their points per game average of 2.375 is the best in in American women’s professional soccer history, besting the previous record set by the 2011 Western New York Flash of Women’s Professional Soccer. In the postseason, they went 2-0,and outscored their opponents 5-0.

When Courage head coach Paul Riley was asked after the game what it feels like to be the “best team in American women’s professional soccer history” he said, “Wow, that sounds really good!”

“I don’t think we can claim the underdog anymore, I think that one’s gone,” Riley said, laughing.

McDonald extended the Courage’s lead by two in the 39th minute, finishing off a one-time service from defender Jaelene Hinkle. The play started with a free kick service from defender Abby Dahlkemper from the right side of the pitch. Dahlkemper’s ball was driven into the box, but bounced out. Hinkle sent the ball back in and behind the Thorns’ defense. McDonald, on her own island with the Thorns’ caught up after the initial clearance, headed it past Thorns goalkeeper Adrianna Franch for her ninth goal on the year.

McDonald’s second goal started from a corner kick chance for the Courage. Dahlkemper and Denise O’Sullivan combined for a short corner, then played it back to defender Merritt Mathias, who was creeping from the right side of the pitch. Mathias took a one-time strike and it went directly to the head of McDonald, who wasn’t marked, and McDonald headed it past Franch for the 3-0 lead.

“Oh my gosh,” Williams said after the game, when asked about McDonald’s performance. “I just have no words for it. We actually just had a moment together in the locker room, because I have been able to play with her up top for three years now, and last year I think she fell short of her dreams and goals that she set for that season. And this year, it just came full circle [for her] and she deserves it more than anybody.”

The Thorns, although demonstrating solid chances through 2018 NWSL MVP Lindsey Horan all game, couldn’t find that golden chance like Sinclair said her side has been fortunate to find down the final stretch of the season.

“There is a lot of us to be proud of this season to get to this point,” Thorns midfielder Tobin Heath said after the game. “I’m really proud of the group and the team, and obviously this game is a disappointment, but we can’t let that be the end all sail of the season because it’s been pretty special.”

Sinclair and Heath both had good opportunities in the second half, but Courage goalkeeper Katelyn Rowland made three saves in the second half to keep the clean sheet.

Heath, who finished the season with seven goals and seven assists, had a team-high five shots on the day and created three chances.

The Thorns close out their 2018 campaign with a 13-7-6 overall record (12-6-6 in the regular season). The Courage finish the regular season at 19-1-6, with 58 goals scored and just 17 allowed.

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