Portland Thorns stuns North Carolina Courage in surprise NWSL Challenge Cup quarterfinal win
It looked like everything was going wrong on Friday for the Portland thorns and their 2020 season was about to end.
The Thorns were missing several key players, including the goalkeeper Bella bixby, who had started all of their previous matches in the NWSL Challenge Cup. They lost two players to injury at the start of the second half, including Lindsey Horan. And North Carolina Courage dominated every parameter, including possession and shooting.
But the disastrous start gave the Thorns a life-changing victory as the rookie’s first career goal. Morgan Weaver knocked down the No. 1 seed, 1-0, in the first round of the knockout stage.
With the result, the last-placed Thorns earned their first Challenge Cup victory and advance to the semi-final, where they face the Houston Dash at 9:30 am PDT on Wednesday. The Courages return home with their first loss after four straight wins.
“We had curved balls after curved balls, backhand after backhand,” Thorns coach Marc Parsons noted. “The power of the group is our strength. He would always be the next player to step up, and today I think the conviction won. “
The Thorns’ breakthrough came in the 68th minute. Rocky rodriguez dribbled to the baseline as Weaver held his run, then sprinted for the ball as Rodriguez slid it into the box. Weaver redirected the ball to the far post, beating Courage goaltender Katelyn Rowland, who covered the near post.
The victory was just as much a merit for the Thorns goalkeeper Britt Eckerström like anyone else. Eckerstrom made eight saves that day, including several spectacular to shut out North Carolina. She crucially denied Courage a possible equalizer in the 87th minute when she went out of her line to deny Debinha a head-to-head.
It was Eckerstrom’s first appearance since last August. Starting goalkeeper Adrianna franch misses the Challenge Cup with a knee injury, and Bixby, who received praise for her performances throughout the tournament, was sidelined on Friday with a less severe knee injury.
“I feel pretty good,” said a low-key Eckerstrom after the game. “That’s when it counted and we put the ball in the back of the net this time, so we can go on and continue this journey.”
Courage fired 21 shots against 10 for Portland, and the Thorns defense had to make 42 clearances against 12 for North Carolina.
Defender Katherine Reynolds had to be replaced by Christen Westphal in the 41st minute after a head-on collision with Lynn Williams of North Carolina.
“A few stitches and a little headache but I’m fine” Reynolds tweeted Friday night.
Portland’s problems worsened in the 50th minute as Horan, who was treating a hip injury, had to be replaced by Celeste Boureille.
“I saw these things happen in the first half – we weathered a few storms, Kath (Reynolds) falling,” Parsons said. “No, the belief hasn’t changed because it’s been history for two or three months now. Unfortunately, we lost a few players and we said from the start that the strength of our group was going to be our secret weapon.
From the first whistle, the Courage dominated and the Thorns spent the entire first half chasing after the game. Courage finished with the advantage in possession of 55% to 45%.
In just the first 51 seconds, Williams beat Thorns’ back line and delivered an unhindered cross to Kristen Hamilton, who was right behind and couldn’t connect. At the half hour mark, Eckerstrom was forced to make a diving save to prevent a shot from Debinha from the top of the box.
The Thorns entered the quarterfinals on Friday with several absences. As well as missing Franch and Bixby, they were deprived of Becky Sauerbrunn (left hip) and first draft selection Sophia Smith (left knee). Tobin Heath has withdrawn from the tournament due to concerns about the spread of COVID-19.
The Thorns were the only team to enter the knockout stage without a win. Meanwhile, Courage was the only team to win all preliminary round matches.
Now the Thorns are heading to the semi-finals against Dash.
– Caitlin murray for The Oregonian / OregonLive