Courage midfielder Jessica McDonald (Lewis Gettier/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

If the North Carolina Courage are to win their fourth consecutive NWSL Shield, coach Paul Riley says they need to work on their midfield play.

On Sunday, the Courage lost to rivals Portland Thorns FC for the first time this season. The 1-0 defeat ended North Carolina’s five-game shutout streak and marked its third straight game without a goal.

Riley critiqued the Courage’s performance as soon as he got on the post-game media call.

“The 10s is where we’re really struggling,” he said. “We’re getting no production out of our [attacking midfield] at the moment. Not only from a goal perspective or assist perspective, but just passing a final ball, creative perspective.”

The missing piece is United States national team player Sam Mewis, who is on the injury list for another four to six weeks as she recovers from knee surgery.

Mewis started in the Courage’s 2-0 win over the Thorns earlier this season, while Portland played without Mewis’ U.S. teammate, Lindsey Horan. It was vice versa on Sunday. The rest of North Carolina’s lineup remained the same.

“I think it just shows what a big difference Horan can make and how not having Sam plays into it,” Riley said.

Starting in the Courage midfield on Sunday were Cari Roccaro, Debinha, Havana Solaun, Denise O’Sullivan and Jessica McDonald, playing two wide, two defensive and one attacking, respectively.

While the Courage are still adjusting to Mewis’ absence in the midfield, they’ve improved in other areas of the field.

“I think we’ve been defending really well, and that’s not just the defenders — that’s the team in general,” said left fullback Carson Pickett. “I think it starts from the front, and being able to defend as a team is really important.”

The game against the Thorns, who lead the league in shots and goals, was a test for the Courage with just six games to go in the regular season.

“It totally felt like a playoff game,” Roccaro said. “I was like, ‘It feels like a final,’ because the weather — I just think of the final here two years ago — playing against such a big opponent, top of the table. Portland’s our rival. It just felt very much like a playoff game, which is good. I think it’s good practice.”

If there are two teams in the NWSL used to playing big matches against each other, it’s the Courage and Thorns, who faced off in the 2017 and 2018 finals. That script might repeat itself this season, with the Thorns running away with the top spot in the league and North Carolina fighting with OL Reign for No. 2.

“If you’re going to win this thing, you’ve got to go through Portland,” Riley said. “There’s no question they’re the best team in the league this year.”

The teams will meet one more time in the regular season, with the Courage traveling to Providence Park on Oct. 30 for the season finale.

“It’s going to be a huge battle,” Roccaro said. “I think we’ll be really up for it though, because [tonight’s] going to leave a sour taste in our mouths.”

With many players now heading home to compete with their national teams in friendlies and FIFA World Cup qualifiers, the Courage will enjoy a two-week break from NWSL matches.

Riley said he’d “rather play tomorrow” than have an extended pause, but his players welcome the opportunity to recharge.

“Our trainings are just as hard as games, so it’s nice to have a couple days of break and everyone gets healthy and relaxed, and hopefully everyone comes back fresh for the last part of the season,” Pickett said.

The Courage next play Sept. 25 against eighth-place NJ/NY Gotham FC, who have allowed nine of their 15 goals against this season in the last seven games. The matchup provides the Courage with an opportunity to work on the offense they weren’t able to execute against Portland.