By Katelyn Best
Orlando, Florida — There was plenty of offensive firepower to be found on the rosters of both sides in Saturday’s NWSL Championship matchup.
The Portland Thorns have one of the most prolific scorers ever in the women’s game in Christine Sinclair. The North Carolina Courage are known for their speedy attack, and for the athleticism of forwards like Lynn Williams, Jessica McDonald, and rookie Ashley Hatch. But these two teams also have the two top defenses in the league, and ultimately, it was defense that won the day for Portland.
“We’re proud of being a great attacking team and we didn’t get to do that much today,” said Thorns coach Mark Parsons after the match. “We’re proud to be a very good, hardworking defensive team, and it won us a championship.”
For two years, Portland’s back line has been anchored by Emily Sonnett and Emily Menges. Parsons has deployed Katherine Reynolds as the third center back for much of the season, with Meghan Klingenberg and Ashleigh Sykes flanking the trio at wingback. Menges and Klingenberg were both named to the NWSL Second Best XI earlier this week.
While Klingenberg and Reynolds have rotated in and out of lineups over those two years due to injuries, and Sykes joined the Thorns earlier this season, Sonnett and Menges played almost every minute this season together.
“It’s special,” said Menges after the match. “I think we’ve gotten to a point where we really connect as a back line… having two years under our belt is something that not many back lines get to have. We rely on each other, and we keep each other accountable, and we can predict what each other are going to do.”
“I’ve talked about building on that,” said Sonnett of the partnership. “I think getting to the final game, and pushing and getting this last win is what we’ve been working for. Hats off to everyone around me, including AD [Franch].”
Although North Carolina took 16 shots to Portland’s four, that back line held strong, and ultimately earned the Thorns another shutout—after the 11 they earned during the regular season.
“Portland is very organized,” said Williams. “They have a great defense. They played with three in the back and two wingers. One would get forward, and another would come back, so it’s like they always had four back there… I think we had a lot of great chances, but they also have a great keeper so it didn’t go our way tonight. They have a great defense, so credit to them.”
Shutting teams out is a point of pride for the Thorns, who Parsons said have “a great mentality to protect this goal and protect this team.”
“AD gave us all dryer sheets today,” said Menges. “Clean sheets. It’s something we pride ourselves on. That’s the goal of a back line in every game we go into, is a clean sheet. … We did our job.”
Although the back five stayed organized throughout most of the match, one breakdown occurred in the 82nd minute, when Jaelene Hinkle played a long ball over the back line as McDonald charged between Sonnett and Menges. McDonald managed to hold Menges off the ball, nearly getting a clear shot at the goal. Menges scrambled back around McDonald to block the shot.
“Menges’s last tackle just kind of showed who this team is,” said Thorns midfielder Lindsey Horan. “We were not going to let another goal in, and the game was not pretty whatsoever, but we came out and we kept battling, and our defending was incredible.”
“I got myself into that problem to begin with,” admitted Menges. “I need to remind people of that. But everyone had plays like that. Just because mine’s in front of goal doesn’t make it more impressive than somebody else’s, up the field.”
On top of her impressive defending, Sonnett notched the assist on the game’s only goal, scored by Horan in the 50th minute. A handball by Abby Dahlkemper earned the Thorns a free kick from near the center line, and Sonnett placed a right-footed kick to the center of the penalty area. Thorns midfielder Amandine Henry got a light touch with her head, and the ball fell to Horan, who hit it over keeper Katelyn Rowland.
“I think that’s something I’ve struggled with throughout the year,” said Sonnett of the free kick. “Just keeping it simple, hitting it to the weak side and hopefully getting a knockdown. … It ended up working out that Lindsey got on the end of it.”
Sonnett had a simple assessment of Portland’s defensive mentality: “Obviously, keeping the ball out of the net, they have a worse chance of winning.”