The North Carolina Courage scored the first goal and earned the first points of the 2018 National Women's Soccer League season in their 1-0 victory over the Portland Thorns FC. The lone goal of the match was scored by North Carolina midfielder Debinha in the 70th minute of the rain-soaked match. The Courage had the better of all major statistical categories, leading 20 to three in shots, 56% to 44% in possession, and earning 12 corner kicks to one for the Thorns.
The first game of the 2018 season was a rematch of the 2017 NWSL Championship Game where the Thorns bested the Courage 1-0. Saturday's match opened with a chilly rain falling across WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, NC, and both teams looked shaky to start the game. Neither side was able to hold possession or create solid opportunities through the first 15 minutes of the match. In that time, the Courage tried long, searching balls and the Thorns tried to build methodically out of the back, but neither side had much success.
As the game approached the half-hour mark, the Courage began to pressure and frustrate the Thorns. Portland was unable to connect passes in the midfield, and the Courage racked up what felt like endless corner kicks. In that time, Portland defender Emily Sonnett and midfielder Lindsey Horan were booked for bad challenges, emboldening the Courage. Despite the repeated chances, the Thorns defense held strong and blocked all Courage shots or managed to head the ball out of danger. It felt like the Courage could cash in at any point, but the whistle would signal the end of the first half while the score was tied at 0-0.
The second half opened with a more evenly paced game. Neither side showed a significant advantage, but the Thorns still struggled to push the ball into the attacking third. Portland playmakers Horan and Christine Sinclair were consistently able to make one or two Courage players miss, but finding a way to force the ball into goalscoring positions never seemed to materialize. At the same time, the Courage slowed a bit and made less precise challenges. It started to feel like the game would end scoreless, much to the chagrin of the soaked fans at Sahlen's Stadium. Their patients were rewarded in the 70th minute when a long pass found the feet of Courage midfielder Denise O'Sullivan. She drove the ball forward and gave it a small touch as she reached the Thorns defensive line to Debinha. The Brazilian midfielder took a touch and launched a rocket into the top-right corner of the net from 22 yards out.
The goal left Portland goalkeeper Adrianna Franch visibly frustrated and put the Thorns into high gear. Their best scoring opportunity came late in the match when forward Mallory Weber snuck in behind the Courage defensive line. She drove at the North Carolina goal, but goalkeeper Sabrina D'Angelo was far off her line and attacked the ball. She was able to block the ball and eventually controlled it. The Thorns continued to pressure, but they were never more threatening than at that point.
The Courage are starting off the season just as they did in 2017. The first home game in the team's history was a 1-0 victory over the Thorns off a Debinha header, and the defense looked imposing against the Thorns. The Thorns, for their part, can take solace in the fact that they gave up just one goal despite missing a large part of their team due to injury and international duty.
The Courage host Sky Blue FC next weekend. It will be the first match of the season for Sky Blue. The Thorns will be on the road again for their second match of the season, this time against the Chicago Red Stars.