The Portland Thorns pulled off one of the greatest upsets in the history of the NWSL when it beat the North Carolina Courage, 1-0, in the opening game of the NWSL Challenge Cup quarterfinals.
The Thorns are one of the great teams in the NWSL, winners of the league title in 2013 and 2017 and Shield in 2016, but they entered the Challenge Cup's knockout round without a win in the
preliminary round. As the eighth seed, they were going up against the Courage, winner of back-to-back league doubles in 2018 and 2019 and all four games in the Challenge Cup's preliminary round.
U.S star Tobin Heath chose to sit out the tournament, and national team players Becky Sauerbrunn, Adrianna French and Sophia Smith are all sidelined with
U.S. national team midfielder Lindsey Horan, bothered by a hip injury, left Friday's game following halftime shortly after taking a fall. That came after defender
Catherine Reynolds was involved in a nasty collision with the Courage's Lynn Williams and had to leave the game late in the first half.
In Franch's place, Bella
Bixby emerged as one of the breakout players of the tournament, but a knee injury forced her out the lineup for the quarterfinals. Third-string keeper Britt Eckerstrom got the start, and
Thorns goalkeeping coach Nadine Angerer, the former Germany great, was forced out of retirement and named as the backup.
Eckerstrom, who had 23 starts in four previous NWSL seasons
with Western New York and Portland, was the hero with eight saves. The three biggest came in the second half after rookie Morgan Weaver gave the Thorns the lead with her first
Eckerstrom stopped Jessica McDonald's header in the 71st minute, then robbed Brazilian star Debinha twice, first on a curling free kick in the 79th minute
and then on a breakaway in the 86th minute.
Portland coach Mark Parsons credited Eckerstrom for how hard she had continued to work in practice, considering the disappointment about
not playing in the first four games, and the team's defensive focus in shutting down the Courage, whose attacks down the wings were stymied.
"Defensively, we were warriors," Parsons said.
"I would have bet another 100 minutes that we wouldn't have conceded today because our bigger purpose was driving us."
July 17 in
Herriman, Utah Portland 1 NC Courage 0. Goal: Weaver (Rodriguez) 68 Portland -- Eckerstrom, Reynolds (Westphal 42), Menges, Hubly, Klingenberg (Pogarch, 82),
Rodriguez, Salem, Horan (Boureille, 51), Sinclair, Lussi (Charley 51), Weaver (Seiler 82) NC Courage --Rowland, Merrick (Mace, 78), Dahlkemper, Erceg, Daniels, Dunn, O’Sullivan,
Mewis, Debinha, Hamilton (McDonald 46), L.Williams. Goalkeeper Jane Campbell
made two saves to propel the Houston Dash to a 3-2 shootout win over the host Utah Royals and a place in the Challenge Cup semifinals against Portland on Wednesday.