Climb back to NWSL title game is already a win for Thorns, Courage

North Carolina Courage are through to the NWSL Championship after beating Chicago Red Stars with a late goal.

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As American soccer fans can attest at the moment, few sounds induce soul searching as easily as a referee's final whistle on a season left unfulfilled. The closer success loomed, the longer the trudge back to the starting line to try the whole odyssey over again the next time.

So it was for the Portland Thorns after a semifinal loss to the Western New York Flash in the National Women's Soccer League playoffs a season ago. There was little shame in the defeat, the game a sprawling, entertaining epic settled only after three goals in extra time. But that hardly spared the soul. All that was left for Thorns coach Mark Parsons to say that evening, with a nod to his English homeland's reputation for stiff upper lips, was that he would seek refuge from the waves of emotion in a cup of tea.

"Then the next day, I was up at 6, 7 a.m. I can't really move on unless I know why, what happened. You start processing the game, you start breaking it down, you start preparing for your exit meetings," Parsons recalled this week of the cuppa. "You plan to never feel like that again, and you start that work."

Saturday will find those same Thorns in Orlando City Stadium to play the North Carolina Courage for the NWSL championship (4:30 p.m. ET, Lifetime). Portland's presence is proof that its will survived disappointment, proof that a foundation put in place over years -- the club has long been the league's best supported, best run and its best advertisement -- was stronger than one result.

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Nadia Nadim and Portland Thorns FC beat the Orlando Pride 4-1 in last Saturday's semifinals.

And yet the opponent Saturday is proof that one result can mean a great deal. The record book won't recognize the Courage as back-to-back champions if they win. But after withstanding an offseason of change, they are largely the same group that won the title as the Flash, transplanted en masse to Cary, North Carolina.

Now they meet again, one team that started anew in spirit and one that started anew in body.

The lowest seed in last year's playoffs, the Flash won the title well ahead of any schedule set when the franchise traded away Carli Lloyd and banked its rebuild on four first-round picks in 2015. Abby Dahlkemper, Samantha Mewis, Taylor Smith and Lynn Williams might not have had established credentials, but each turned NWSL performance into U.S. women's national team minutes.

But with little advance warning, the Flash -- who were independently owned and long operating with a different economic model than many clubs -- were sold in January to a group from North Carolina that also operates the men's club North Carolina FC in the North American Soccer League.

"It was last minute, we were kind of uncertain and we didn't really know that much information," Dahlkemper said. "... Being able to have the same team, the same coaching staff come back for the most part and be in a new environment together, it was like, 'OK, we don't know much, but we're in it together.'"

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McCall Zerboni and the North Carolina Courage had the best regular-season record at 16-7-1, edging the second-place Thorns (14-5-5) for the league's Supporters' Shield.

The unsettling timing aside, especially given the history of failed franchises in previous leagues, the move offered upgrades. Players not only shared the same housing complex, Dahlkemper noted, but dealt with only a short commute from there to training. A bigger budget allowed for more staff and increased medical care, like cryotherapy and regular massages. Courage coach Paul Riley even cited the ability to train outdoors on a regular basis as important.

The Courage added to their ranks. First-round pick Ashley Hatch, yet another draft success, provided goals while holdovers Williams and Jessica McDonald dealt with injuries. International investments paid dividends. Although both Brazilian midfielder Debhina was injured last week in the semifinal against Orlando and Japanese defender Yuri Kawamura was lost to an ACL tear in June, Irish playmaker Denise O'Sullivan, a midseason signing, summed up her impact in recent months by scoring the winning goal in the semifinals.

Yet for all the positives, change is a challenge. And more than most new champions, change surrounded the Courage, not just in expectations on the field but in everything from climate to the best place to find groceries and a cup of coffee. The Courage could have been less cohesive or more distracted. Instead, a defense once too generous became one of the league's stingiest and the underdog became the regular-season champion.

"We had a lot of success in our environment in New York last year," veteran midfielder McCall Zerboni said. "And to be taken away from that and to go through all those changes could have been a really difficult thing. But not for this group. That's because of Paul and our staff. It doesn't matter where we are. You could put us anywhere, but it's the culture we create and the people we have. It's the standard we set -- it's the strength, the core of the unit.

"You either get on board with the handful of us, or you're not going to fit into this environment."

It is the environment of Portland that makes it both the best place to play and the most difficult to meet expectations. With the support of as many as 20,000 fans at games and the star-studded roster of committed ownership, the Thorns exist in a title-or-bust model. They won the championship in the league's first season. They haven't since.

And that regular-season title a season ago dissolved in that semifinal against the Flash, who won 4-3 in overtime.

"The thing that hurt me the most was seeing the players -- players crying on the field, senior players that had been in World Cup and Olympics -- crying on the field in front of their fans," Parsons said. "It was a heartbreaker. And the way it happened, it just didn't feel right."

So if the challenge for the Courage was in keeping things together, the challenge for the Thorns might have been resisting the temptation to tinker too much.

"You don't change the things that made you good," Parsons said. "You don't change the way that you work that put you in this position. You've got to get back rolling."

Adrianna Franch replaced Michelle Betos in goal and thrived. Absences were weathered because of injury (Tobin Heath recently returned) and international duty (Europeans such as Dagny Brynsjarsdottir, Amandine Henry and Nadia Nadim). But the lineup that takes the field Saturday, led as ever by captain Christine Sinclair, will likely look a great deal like that in last year's semifinal.

The difficulty wasn't finding a missing piece but focus to go through another long season without going through the motions. A second-place finish in the regular season -- despite a better goal differential than it had last year -- set the stage for the semifinal win at home and the chance to play the game Portland has been waiting, and expecting to play, since that first title in 2013.

"The feeling after the [semifinal] game was there's more in the tank," Parsons said. "It's exciting that you get to the end of this journey, and with one week to go, the players look like they want to run more, they want to train more, they want to play more and they can't wait for Saturday."

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