NWSL Final: Thorns and Courage ready for epic battle

For the second time in six seasons, the NWSL final has come down to a rematch of the previous year's final -- a particularly intense final.

In 2017, the Portland Thorns defeated the North Carolina Courage, 1-0, in a match Portland coach Mark Parsons termed “maybe the most beautiful ugly game I've ever been a part of."

Nothing Parsons or his Courage counterpart, Paul Riley, said on Friday suggested that either team is ready to back down from another physical battle on Saturday when the Thorns and Courage play before a sellout crowd at Providence Park.

"They were physical last year," Riley said of the Thorns. "I hope they come out and play this year because they didn't play last year. They just kicked us all over the place."

Parsons said Riley's comments need to be taken with a pinch of salt.

"We've experienced it last year," he said "We've experienced it this year. This is a very physical league, very intense. We got kicked around all season last year by North Carolina and one of the things we had to do is match their physicality in the final."

2018 meetings:

March 24: North Carolina 1 Portland 0
May 30:
Portland 1 North Carolina 4
Aug. 5: North Carolina 2 Portland 1

NC COURAGE.  Like in 2017, the Courage enters the 2018 final as the Shield winner. The difference is, it broke multiple NWSL records in winning the 2018 regular-season championship -- most wins (17), most points (57), most goals scored (53) and fewest goals allowed (17).

North Carolina opened with a 12-game unbeaten streak before dropping a 1-0 decision to Utah, but has been unbeaten in 12 NWSL games since then -- 14 games overall if you throw in the wins over Paris St. Germain and Lyon to win the ICC women's title in July.

The wins over the two French clubs underscored the strength of the Courage -- the depth of its talent. It was missing six starters away on international duty and still won.

That depth is being tested again. All-league midfielder McCall Zerboni is out with a broken elbow suffered on Sept. 4. All her replacement, Irishwoman Denise O'Sullivan, did in 2018 was be named the team's MVP.

In goal, Sabrina D'Angelo shut out the Chicago Red Stars, 2-0, in Tuesday's semifinal, her first league start since May in place of Katelyn Rowland, sidelined with a concussion. Rowland trained on Friday but she was still listed as questionable for the final.

NC Courage probable XI:
0 Katelyn Rowland, 24
1 Sabrina D'Angelo, 25
15 Jaelene Hinkle, 25
6 Abby Erceg, 28 (first team)
13 Abby Dahlkemper, 25 (first team)
11 Merritt Mathias, 28 (second team)
10 Debinha, 27 (second team)
8 Denise O’Sullivan, 24
5 Samantha Mewis, 25
19 Crystal Dunn, 25 (first team)
9 Lynn Williams, 25 (second team)
14 Jessica McDonald, 30

PORTLAND. The Thorns' injury problems came early in the season. Tobin Heath and Emil Menges didn't start their first games until May, and all-league goalkeeper Adrianna Franch missed two months. Caitlin Foord, injured in the offseason in Australia, wasn't ready until late in the season.

Portland's issues were compounded by the loss of French star Amandine Henry and Danish forwards Nadia Nadim, who returned to Europe in the offseason. The Thorns were 2-3-3 after eight games, but they have not lost since their last meeting with the Courage on Aug. 5.

Australian Ellie Carpenter, the youngest player in the NWSL at age 18, and midfielder Midge Purce, who came over from the defunct Boston Breakers in the offseason, have stepped into the starting lineup. Foord's return from a foot injury coincided with the late Portland run.

Portland Thorns probable XI:
24 Adrianna Franch, 27 (first team)
15 Ellie Carpenter, 18
25 Meghan Klingenberg, 30
4 Emily Menges, 24 (second team)
16 Emily Sonnett, 24 (first team)
30 Celeste Boureille, 23
10 Lindsey Horan, 24 (first team)
23 Midge Purce, 22
12 Christine Sinclair, 35 (second team)
17 Tobin Heath, 30 (first team)
9 Caitlin Foord, 23 (Australia)
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