Thorns rally past Courage
On an afternoon a record crowd urged the Portland Thorns to find a way past the defending National Women's Soccer League champions, goalkeeper Adrianna Franch had her team's back.
Franch made 10 saves, many of them high-difficulty, and two second-half North Carolina own goals rallied Portland to a spirited 2-1 Sunday win over the Courage.
The victory vaults the Thorns back to the top of the NWSL standings just days after a frustrating loss in Tacoma to rival Reign FC. Portland is 8-3-6 (30 points) after beating a rival it lost to all three times last season, including in the championship match. North Carolina is 8-4-4 (28) and sits third behind surging Chicago (29 points). North Carolina, Chicago and fourth-place Reign FC have each played one fewer game than Portland.
The Thorns fell behind before much of the sellout crowd of 25,218 settled in, with Crystal Dunn scoring in the fourth minute for the Courage. The visitors dictated play for much of the first half, but the insertion of Hayley Raso and Midge Purce at halftime, along with a new sense of urgency, paid off.
Portland tied it in the 56th minute. A poorly-struck Tobin Heath corner kick was recovered by a hustling Emily Sonnett who pushed the ball to Elizabeth Ball in space. Ball sent a cross to the 6-yard box that North Carolina goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe mis-handled.
Labbe collided in the air with teammate Merritt Mathias and the ball spun from her grasp and bounced into the goal.
The winner also was an own goal, though that was more a case of aggressive attacking forcing the issue. Raso made a run to meet a. Christine Sinclair cross. The ball ricocheted and found its way into the goal off the leg of North Carolina's Abby Erceg.
North Carolina was on the front foot from the start against a Thorns side that saw significant lineup rotation after playing on Wednesday at Tacoma.
That was enough because of Franch's heroics. In the first half she made a leaping play to tip away a Dunn shot. Midway through the second half she denied Lynn Williams chance. And in the final 15 minutes the Portland keeper turned away high-quality chances for Dunn, Jessica McDonald, Kristen Hamilton.
"We still made mistakes. I still made mistakes. So we look at those mistakes and that's what we continue to grow on," Franch said after tying the Thorns record for saves in a game, matching 10 from Karina LeBlanc in August of 2013 against FC kansas City.
Portland coach Mark Parsons rotated his starting lineup, resting Meghan Klingenberg for the first time this season and Gabby Seiler for the first time in months, among others. Parsons said the lineup changes were driven by getting fresh players into the lineup and rest for a few who have played big minutes.
He said winning with a rotated lineup should only increase the group's confidence level, and the competition for playing time.
"It's not normal that we've done this," Parsons said. "We've tried to evolve but we've got so much talent that we're going to have to keep the open mind and keep the competitiveness driving this group forward."
Dunn struck in the fourth minute. After a quick buildup to the right side, the ball found the unmarked Dunn eight yards from goal and she struck it cleanly. Lynn Williams assisted on the goal, poking the ball away from a defender to the wide-open Dunn after Williams contested for a cross from Kristen Hamilton.
North Carolina pressured the Thorns into giveaways and made it difficult for Portland to play out of the back and through the midfield.
Portland's best first-half chances were a header from Lindsey Horan that flashed wide in the 30th minute and a dangerous ball across the 6-yard box from Tobin Heath that Erceg got a touch on for a corner kick.
Of course, the first sellout crowd for a Thorns match in the expanded Providence Park added to the excitement on Sunday. The 25,218 is the largest crowd ever to see a NWSL match.
Franch and her teammates were not surprised.
"That's the great thing about these fans: they've come from the start (of the league)," Franch said. "Nothing really changes. You've just brought more into the stadium. Feeling that difference, like 5,000, 4,000 difference, that's what makes it louder, but that doesn't change."
Sunday's match was the first of three in a row at home for the Thorns, who play host to the Washington Spirit at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday.
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