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North Carolina Courage

North Carolina Courage wins NWSL Championship 3-0 over Portland Thorns

PORTLAND, Ore. – After the unprecedented success of their regular season and the unprecedented tumult of their playoffs, the North Carolina Courage unleashed an unprecedented display of dominance in the National Women’s Soccer League championship game.

With two goals from Jessica McDonald and an immense supporting effort from Jaelene Hinkle, the Courage routed the Portland Thorns 3-0 Saturday at Providence Park.

The win made the Courage the first ever NWSL double winners, adding the biggest prize of all to the regular-season title. And they did it with style. They won the Shield with the most points, goals scored and wins, and the fewest losses and goals conceded, in league history, then won the playoff final by the league’s largest ever margin.  You could even call it a treble, counting the International Champions Cup triumph in July.

“We wanted to go in there with confidence, because obviously it’s a home game for the Portland Thorns, and they got to play in front of their fan base — which is absolutely an incredible thing,” said McDonald, who was voted the game’s Most Valuable Player. “You couldn’t ask for better fans to play in front of. We wanted to go out there and give not only them a performance, but also our fans that couldn’t make it to the semifinal [and] our players that couldn’t be here with us.”

As an announced sellout crowd of 21,444 – the largest for any professional women’s soccer final in American history – roared its approval, the game opened at a blistering pace. Both teams committed to the kind of open soccer that last year’s foul-filled final lacked.

Just over 12 minutes in, North Carolina found the opening goal with a dazzling sweep up the field. Crystal Dunn splintered Portland’s back line with a dazzling pass over the top toward Lynn Williams, who put Ellie Carpenter on a swivel as she collected the bouncing ball. Williams then struck a shot off the crossbar that left Adrianna Franch helpless, and Debinha arrived right on cue to stick the rebound home.

North Carolina doubled its lead in the 40th minute, thanks to a free kick earned when Tobin Heath upended Debinha just past midfield. Samantha Mewis launched a service toward the 18-yard box that Celeste Boureille headed out. But the clearance went straight to Jaelene Hinkle, who hit a first-touch pass over the Thorns’ back line. Jessica McDonald headed the bouncing ball past Franch.

It was a well-earned goal for McDonald, who’d had a few good looks earlier in the game but couldn’t get them on frame. It was also one of many big-time plays in the first half by Hinkle, who was showered with boos every time she touched the ball. The crowd hadn’t forgotten her history of homophobic remarks, but it was clear Hinkle wasn’t rattled.

“The last conversation I had [before the game] was with Jaelene, and I just said, ‘You know, do the best you can. Be strong out there,’ ” Courage manager Paul Riley said. “I thought she was phenomenal tonight. … Yeah, she got booed every time she got the ball, but it didn’t bother her. She got on with it, and I thought she put in a first-class performance today.” 

The Thorns got on the front foot early in the second half, pushing hard for a goal to swing momentum in their favor. But there seemed to be some incisiveness missing, such as when Tobin Heath cut in from the left side in the 47th minute, and they had multiple good looks to shoot but did not.

Heath did shoot in the 54th, forcing Katelyn Rowland’s first big save of the day. Rowland gave up a juicy rebound, but Hinkle was right next to her to clean it up.

From there, the Courage settled things down and asserted themselves more. And in the 64th minute, McDonald scored again, finishing off a superb corner-kick play. Abby Dahlkemper played a little pass to Denise O’Sullivan, who swept the ball out to Merritt Mathias, who fired in a cross that McDonald headed home from just off the goal line.

McDonald celebrated both of her goals by lifting her jersey to reveal an undershirt with the printed message “JESUS PAID IT ALL.” She was booked for the second celebration because she fully removed her jersey, but she wasn’t booked the first time because the celebration was more brief. Neither moment was missed by the crowd, though.

Rowland had another highlight-reel save in the 72nd minute, tipping a Christine Sinclair smash from 25 yards over the crossbar at full stretch. From there, the Courage had little trouble seeing out the game.

“While we’ll over-analyze ourselves, we’ve got to say well done to the Courage, because I thought they were very good,” Thorns manager Mark Parsons said. “We just didn’t have that final push to create the quality chance that we normally do. … It wasn’t quite there. Credit to what they did defensively to make sure it wasn’t there.”

When the Courage bench stormed the field at the final whistle, all the memories of last year’s title game loss and this year’s hurricane-stricken playoffs were finally cast off. The trophy, revenge and a place in American soccer’s history books were theirs.

The Thorns conceded defeat with embraces and handshakes. As the sun broke through clouds high above Providence Park, it felt for a moment like Mother Nature had sent her regards as well.

And Riley, for so long the master of playing the underdog card, confessed he had to surrender it.

“I don’t think we can claim the underdog [title] anymore,” Riley said. “It’s officially finished.” 

Jonathan Tannenwald is the soccer beat writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He is covering the NWSL championship game this weekend for Pro Soccer USA. See more of his work at philly.com/jtannenwald, and follow him on Twitter at @thegoalkeeper.

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