The 2018 National Women's Soccer League will open its sixth season on Saturday when the North Carolina Courage host to the Portland Thorns FC at 3:30 pm at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, NC. The game will be a rematch of the 2017 NWSL Championship Game where the Thorns bested the Courage 1-0 off a Lindsey Horan goal in the 50th minute. The game was notable for its intense physicality that saw Courage defender Taylor Smith knocked out in the 12th minute with a separated shoulder. In the 39th minute, forward Kristen Hamilton had to be subbed out with a knee injury. Thorns midfielder Tobin Heath suffered an ankle injury during the game, and while she seemed hobbled she was able to see out the game.
A vastly different Thorns roster
Portland underwent many significant changes during the offseason. Three European players, Nadia Nadim (Denmark), Amandine Henry (France) and Dagny Brynjarsdottir (Iceland) will not be playing for the Thorns this season. Nadim and Henry opted to return to Europe in advance of the 2019 Women's World Cup and Brynjarsdottir is away on maternity leave. Heath, who missed nearly the entire 2017 season with an injured back, will miss the first part of the season after having ankle surgery during the offseason. Defender Emily Menges will also miss the first game due to injury. The Thorns also traded away midfielder Allie Long to the Seattle Reign FC for the rights to Catlin Foord.
The Thorns roster will be further diminished by the absence of most of their international players. Westfield Matildas forward Hayley Raso and defender Ellie Carpenter will miss the first few weeks of the season while they participate in the World Cup qualifying tournament for Australia, and newly-acquired midfielder Andressinha will miss the same weeks while participating in Brazil's qualifying tournament. The Thorns also signed Australian midfielder Caitlin Foord, but she suffered a foot injury that required surgery, and her return this season is questionable.
With so many missing players, the Thorns will have to rely on their selections from the Boston Breakers Dispersal Draft to fill the holes. Forwards Midge Purce and Ifeoma Onumonu and midfielder Angela Salem were all selected by the Thorns and will likely play prominent roles early in the season. This Thorns team will look vastly different from the team that started the game against the Courage just five months ago. Four of the starters in that match and all three substitutes will not be available for the Thorns this weekend.
The Courage rely on consistency
For every bit that the Thorns roster experienced turnover in the offseason, the Courage roster remained nearly the same. 18 of the 23 players named to the 2018 roster for the Courage were with the team in 2018, and while the team isn't entirely the same it still feels like the 2017 Courage squad.
The most notable absence from the match with Portland will be midfielder Sam Mewis, who is dealing with a right knee strain. Mewis will be unavailable for the match after missing the entire preseason. Fellow midfielder Makenzy Doniak, who came on as a substitute when Smith was injured in the 2017 Championship, suffered an ACL injury on the first day of preseason training and is out for the season. Additionally, forward Ashley Hatch and defender Taylor Smith were traded to the Washington Spirit for United States women's national team forward Crystal Dunn. The Courage project to have three different starters than the last time these two teams met.
While the Courage will miss Hatch and Smith, they have acquired suitable replacements. Dunn is one of the most explosive forwards and best strikers in the United States. She brings a level of speed and finesse that Hatch couldn't quite match. To replace Smith, the Courage traded a second-round pick to the Reign for defender Merritt Mathias. Mathias slipped seamlessly into the right back role in a 3-0 preseason victory over the Washington Spirit. Mathias will play alongside Abby Dahlkemper, Abby Erceg and Jaelene Hinkle on the back line. The Courage also added defender Allysha Chapman during the Dispersal Draft, and she projects to be a depth player at this point.
A defensive struggle
The Thorns and Courage faced off on three occasions during the 2017 season, and all three matches ended with 1-0 scorelines. In both regular season matches the home team came away victorious, and the Thorns bested the Courage during the Championship. 2017 Goalkeeper of the Year, Adrianna Franch, is one of the most accomplished keepers in the NWSL, and defenders Megan Klingenberg, Emily Sonnett, and Katherine Reynolds are a force at the back. The Thorns defense allowed a league-fewest 20 goals against in 2017. They will need to be on their game on Saturday with so many of their attacking players out of commission.
The Courage boasted similar defensive successes in 2017. They broke a league record with 12 clean sheets and allowed 22 goals against, second only to the Thorns. Unlike the Thorns, the Courage boast a stronger offensive presence than they did in 2017. Forwards Jess McDonald and Darian Jenkins are healthy and excited to get the season going, and the addition of Dunn is a complete game changer on offense.
The Thorns will look to play smart, possession-oriented soccer that shows off their ability to control the speed of play and strike effectively. The Thorns will need to frustrate the Courage and force them to make mistakes while holding a high defensive line to limit the effectiveness of the Courage to use their speed on offense. The Courage will use their physicality and strength to dominate the game and push the Thorns into awkward situations. Getting the ball past Franch is always a difficult task, but inclement weather on game day could complicate things for the keepers.The Courage will try to dominate the midfield, where their team familiarity and aggression should shine.
Predictions are hard so early in the season, but a 1-1 draw seems like the best guess with both teams settling into regular season play. A slight edge should probably be given to the Courage since they are at home and have far fewer players missing.
You can catch the game on LifeTime and coverage starts at 3:30 pm ET on Saturday, March 24. You can also follow along live on VAVEL where Emily Sanzone will bring you all the action.