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NC Courage shuts out Portland Thorns for NWSL championship, avenging 2017 title game

Portland Thorn’s Caitlin Foord, right, battles North Carolina Courage’s Jaelene Hinkle, left, for the ball during the National Women’s Soccer League championship game in Portland, Ore., on Saturday.
Portland Thorn’s Caitlin Foord, right, battles North Carolina Courage’s Jaelene Hinkle, left, for the ball during the National Women’s Soccer League championship game in Portland, Ore., on Saturday. AP

The North Carolina Courage coasted through the 2018 National Women’s Soccer League regular season, posting just one loss during the 24-game calendar and setting a new league record for points in a single season with 57.

But the best team in NWSL history still felt like the underdog by the time they reached Saturday’s NWSL Championship Game.

First, the Courage lost star midfielder McCall Zerboni, a finalist for the NWSL MVP Award, to a season-ending injury ahead of the playoffs. Then, they missed out on a chance to host a well-earned semifinal after Hurricane Florence forced the match to be moved across the country to Portland and be played two days later than expected. The Courage managed to beat the Chicago Red Stars 2-0 in the rescheduled semifinal, but were forced to turn around and face the Portland Thorns on short-rest in front of a hostile crowd in Saturday’s championship.

But the Courage didn’t allow the adversity to derail their season. North Carolina coasted to a 3-0 victory over the Thorns behind two goals from Jessica McDonald to win the 2018 NWSL Championship title in front of a sold-out crowd of 21,144 at Providence Park Saturday.

“We didn’t complain a single time when it came to the hurricane, when we had to come here and not play at home,” McDonald said. “Little things like that give us extra fuel, a little bit of an extra spark. We were in it together no matter what, no matter what tried to get in our way.”

With the win, North Carolina became the first team in NWSL history to win both the NWSL Shield and NWSL Championship title in the same season. It was the first championship title for the Courage organization. The Western New York Flash won the 2016 NWSL Championship title with many of the same players before the club relocated to North Carolina and were rebranded as the Courage in 2017.

After losing 1-0 to the Thorns in last year’s NWSL Championship Game, the Courage got their revenge in spectacular fashion Saturday as well.

“It was a really good performance,” Courage coach Paul Riley said. “Forget the result, the performance was really good. We deserved to win the game. We dominated major parts of the game. The midfield bossed it. We executed everything.”

It took just 13 minutes for the Courage to momentarily silence a packed Providence Park Saturday afternoon. Midfielder Debinha gave the Courage a 1-0 lead as she headed-in a rebound after a deflected shot from Lynn Williams hit off the crossbar.

The Courage found a second goal in the 40th minute when an unmarked McDonald got on the end of a pass from defender Jaelene Hinkle and put an open header into the back of the net.

“Sometimes you get to a final and it maybe doesn’t produce what you want,” Riley said. “Today, they produced everything you could ask for in a performance. It was good start to finish.”

McDonald put the game out of reach with a second goal in the 64th minute, heading in a cross from Merritt Mathias after a Courage corner kick. McDonald was named the NWSL Championship Game MVP for her performance.

“We wanted to go out there and give not only the (Portland fans) a performance, but also give a performance for our fans that couldn’t make it to the semifinal, for our players that couldn’t be here with us,” McDonald said. “Overall, it was a great team performance.”

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