Injuries, refereeing, defense: Top moments of the 2017 NWSL Championship

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The 2017 NWSL Championship was far from the prettiest final ever, but the Portland Thorns were worthy winners. 

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​Major early injury for the Courage again

The North Carolina Courage’s U.S. international-quality talent rivals that of any team in the league, so it’s easy to lose sight of just how important right back Taylor Smith has been.

She’s as essential to this Courage team — on defense and in attack — as any player, and while her loss can’t be blamed for the choppy half, her absence providing pace and width on North Carolina’s right side certainly didn’t help the flow of the game.

North Carolina lost midfielder Debinha in the opening 10 minutes of its semifinal victory over the Chicago Red Stars. On Saturday the Courage had to deal with another major change (and another; keep reading) early in a match, this time in a position that had no natural replacement, as Denise O’Sullivan is for Debinha.

— Jeff Kassouf

Mewis off the bar from nearly midfield

Then, another Courage player falls

Having to burn a substitute early hurts. When it’s to account for injury, that pain is literal. When it happens twice in the same first half, though, things start to feel unfair, almost as if things just aren’t meant to be.

So it was with Kristen Hamilton, herself filling in for Debinha. In the 39th minute, the Courage attacking midfielder was removed from the game with what the broadcast reported as an MCL injury. In came Jessica McDonald — a forward for a midfielder — along with a change of shape. McDonald and the team’s starting forwards, Lynn Williams and Ashley Hatch, were forced into a three-front.

Along the way, the game started to carry an element of barbarism. A tight referee’s whistle over the match’s first 20 minutes gave way to a game more akin to an "American Gladiators" reboot than high-level soccer. The wreckage slowed Carolina, who had been the better team throughout the half, and allowed the game to reach halftime at 0-0.

— Richard Farley

Set-piece defending fails Carolina

The second half starting promisingly for North Carolina, who almost saw a ball played over the top for Lynn Williams lead to a Jessica McDonald goal. The substitute’s whiff in front of an open net looked particularly costly moments later, though, as the Courage’s stingy defense failed to find one of Portland’s most dangerous players on a restart.

The ball from Sonnett, lofted from just inside North Carolina’s half, was innocuous enough, but when it went past the Courage defense to an open Lindsey Horan, goalkeeper Katelyn Rowland had no chance to prevent the game’s opening goal. Blasting her shot high into the right of goal, the U.S. international put her team’s feckless first half behind it, scoring what immediately felt like a decisive goal.

— RF

The whistle finally blows

Four minutes of stoppage were shown, but as the on-screen click creeped toward a 97th minute, it seemed inevitable: In a game shaped by bizarre, passive officiating, of course the referee would let the match define itself.

Ultimately, before the clock hit 96:00, the whistle finally blew, and for the first time in four years, Portland was NWSL champion. Largely outplayed for much of the match, the Thorns struck early in the second, putting itself in position to rely on the league’s best defense to claim the club’s second title.

Last season, the team that’s now North Carolina (the Western New York Flash) was bossed much of the game but eventually bested Washington on penalty kicks to claim the title. This year, the boot is on the other foot. Hard done by injuries in the first half, a set-piece mistake in the second, the Courage will walk away wondering how close it came to a second straight title.

— RF