BY PAUL DANZER/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Portland's National Women's Soccer League team has 'unfinished business' with North Carolina

The Portland Thorns face a key stretch in the National Women's Soccer League season, beginning with a Saturday game against league-leading North Carolina.

Kickoff is at 12:30 p.m. at Providence Park.

The match would be big even if it wasn't so important for the Thorns, who enter the weekend fifth in the NWSL and eight points behind the Courage. The last time the club led by former Thorns coach Paul Riley visited Portland was Oct. 2, when it was the Western New York Flash and won a wild NWSL semifinal.

"Every time we play them from here on out we know that it's going to be a game," Thorns defender Emily Menges says. "We have some unfinished business with them, so that's the mentality."THORNS-COURAGE PREVIEW

The Courage come to Portland with a 9-4 record, having won three in a row and four of their last five. Seven players have scored at least twice; rookie Ashley Hatch leads the team with four goals.

Lynn Williams, last season's NWSL MVP and top goal scorer, missed three games with an ankle injury before playing 66 minutes in last weekend's 2-0 Courage win over Seattle. Williams has three goals and two assists in 10 games this season

The Thorns are fifth in the standings at 5-4-4, a point behind fourth-place Seattle and eight points back of the Courage.

The Thorns enter the first of three consecutive home matches without five of the 12 field players who were in the 2016 semifinal. Nadia Nadim, Amandine Henry and Dagny Brynjarsdoittr are away for the European Championships, which begin for each on Sunday. Tobin Heath remains on the disabled list. Katherine Reynolds, a mainstay last season at right back, has not played this season because of injury.

Thorns coach Mark Parsons says North Carolina comes to Portland with a stronger squad than the team that won the October playoff. He calls this "a massive challenge" for his team.

"The group has embraced that," Parsons says. "And I think that's not a bad thing for us — knowing we have to be at our absolute best and empty the tank all over the field on Saturday to get what we need to get out of this."

Parsons points out the Thorns got two good performances last season when they were significantly shorthanded because of players away for the Olympics.

The Thorns are coming off a 1-1 draw at Houston, a result rescued by Lindsey Horan's stoppage-time free kick that was chosen NWSL goal of the week. The match featured a poor first-half performance that Parsons called unacceptable. The coach was happier with the second half, when Christine Sinclair and others got and took opportunities to shoot at goal.

The Courage beat Portland 1-0 on April 22 in Cary, North Carolina. Parsons says his team needs to react better and move the ball quicker against up-field pressure. He anticipates an intense, high-paced contest.

"We're in a position where we have to go for it and they're in a position where that's their model," Parsons says. "They always go for it. They're always on the front foot."

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