Ugly NWSL Championship game offers no points for style

Brad Smith-ISI Photos

One-off playoffs can be a blunt, brutal affairs. The 2017 NWSL final was a prime example.

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ORLANDO, Fla. -- The North Carolina Courage’s gameplan took a drastic turn less than two minutes into Saturday’s National Women’s Soccer League Championship.

That’s when right fullback Taylor Smith, who this year rose from virtual unknown to a U.S. international, fell awkwardly on her right arm after a collision with Portland Thorns forward Tobin Heath. The foul looked more accidental than anything, but what followed was a bloodbath that made for the ugliest 45 minutes of championship soccer in the league’s five-year history.

“They were physical – overstretched from physical. It might have been more than physical,” Courage head coach Paul Riley said. “I think they had more tackles than passes in the first half, so they got into us. It looked like that was their gameplan and unfortunately, it did knock us out of our rhythm.”

They have some great players, and I’d rather see the players play than kick people ...

- Paul Riley

Smith labored through a few minutes of running with an immobile right arm before Riley replaced her with Makenzy Doniak and moved Kristen Hamilton to right back. Twenty minutes later, Hamilton limped off the field.

The first half saw 11 fouls called and many would-be infractions not whistled by referee Danielle Chesky. It was out of character for a Thorns team which made a habit of a more possession-based game all season. But that also hints at the realities of one-off, playoff soccer. Win now, whatever the course, a concept that often has reared its ugly head in Major League Soccer’s Cup finals.

It’s encouraged by the NWSL’s playoff setup. Be one of the four teams to qualify for the playoffs, and you are two victories from a championship. Portland felt that pain last year at the hands of what largely looked like the same opponent. The Western New York Flash, which relocated to North Carolina in January, went into Providence Park in the 2016 semifinal and shocked the Shield-winning Thorns in a wild extra-time victory, leaving the Thorns feeling unfulfilled despite being the best team in the regular season.

In 2017, the Courage got a taste of what it’s like to be on the other side.

Portland head coach Mark Parsons said he did not direct his team to play physically. Instead, the extra “spice” was more of a built-up energy.

“No, there hasn’t been any directive,” Parsons said. “We didn’t talk about it. We talked about it at the beginning of the year. We haven’t talked about it all week; we haven’t talked about it pregame. We’ve held these players back from touching each other in training for two weeks …

“If there’s a reason we felt extra spice tonight, they haven’t felt contact in two weeks in training. Every time someone gets close, we’re screaming: ‘No contact. Stay away.’ So, maybe that boiled up. I thought both teams were as good as each other at pressure and challenging for the ball.”

The 24 total fouls in the match don’t do justice to how ugly it got from both teams, as illustrated by three brutal tackles in four minutes of first-half stoppage time: one which earned Hayley Raso a yellow card, followed a minute later by McCall Zerboni whacking Raso, capped by Doniak taking down Heath.

The physical play disrupted the match, stymying dangerous North Carolina forwards Lynn Williams, Jessica McDonald and Ashley Hatch and turning the midfield battle into an ugly, contentious game which might typically suit North Carolina – assuming the Courage was prepared for it.

“I’m surprised the way Portland played the first half. It’s not that type of team,” Riley said. “They have some great players, and I’d rather see the players play than kick people, but they chose the latter the first half. At least the second half, the game started. It was more like a 45-minute game than it was a 90-minute game.”

North Carolina and Portland were far and away the two best teams in the NWSL this season. Each team was forced to make tactical and stylistic changes throughout the year. Portland added grit when needed to its glamorous play, and North Carolina relied on pure athleticism which could be matched by few others.

Parsons won’t take credit for preparing his team to play physically, but the punch to the mouth that the Thorns provided North Carolina was both out of character and exactly what was needed on the day. That’s the ugly truth about finals: There are no points for style.

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