The NWSL’s first final takes place Saturday, 8:00 p.m. Eastern at Sahlen’s Stadium in Rochester, NY. Regular season winners Western New York Flash, led by reigning FIFA World Player of the Year Abby Wambach, will take on Portland Thorns FC, with the season’s third place finishers hoping an injured Alex Morgan can return for the final.
Click here for a look at Portland; but for now, here is a look at the favorites in Saturday’s final, Western New York:
Defending: When U.S. Soccer allocated U.S., Canadian, and Mexican national team players to the eight teams that would make up the NWSL, the Flash, an organization coming off three straight titles (albeit in different leagues), got no help at the back. Most teams were allocated a goalkeeper and at least one starting-caliber defender from their three U.S. allocations, but not Western New York. Not only did head coach Aaran Lines fail to get a starter for his back five (American or otherwise), he only got two U.S. allocations. The logic, we were told? If team was going to be shorthanded (U.S. Soccer only handing out 23 Americans), it was going to be the team with the best player in the world.
To Lines’ credit, he’s used free agency and astute drafting to forge the league’s best defense. Because other teams were given goalkeepers in allocation, Oklahoma State’s Adrianna Franch (right) fell to Western New York in the college draft. She went on to finish second in Rookie of the Year voting while being chosen second team all-league. While the NWSL office may have given Lines a raw deal in allocation, they also paved the way for Western New York to acquire one of the league’s best keepers.
In front of Franch, Lines drafted Estelle Johnson and paired her in the middle with free agent Brittany Taylor, somebody Western New York was converting to central defense. They brought Katherine Reynolds back from Germany to play at left back while club president Alex Sahlen played on the right, putting in a surprisingly strong season before a season-ending injury.
Against a Thorns team that’s lacked width all season, playing midfielder Sarah Huffman at left back shouldn’t be too much of a problem. The core finished with the league’s best defensive record, allowing only 20 goals in 23 games, will be in tact – a group that gave up only one goal in 180 minutes to Portland this season.
Attack: As with any Abby Wambach team, everything revolves around her, whether she’s on the ball or not. She’ll not only torment Portland’s central duo, Rachel Buehler and Kathryn Williamson, she’ll also serve as a focal point out of the back and open up space for her teammates, the effects of which helped Carli Lloyd score eight times in 15 appearances.
The true virtue of this set up comes when Wambach goes left, which happens surprisingly often for a player whose known for her penalty area prowess. Between Lloyd in attacking midfield and Spanish international Adriana Martín on the left (somebody who has many number nine qualities, herself), the Flash have two goalscorers who can fill the space she creates. The threat of 19-year-old Sam Kerr (right) on the right, an Australian international responsible for six goals and five assists this season, gives Western New York the type of balance that keeps them dangerous even when Wambach’s been accounted for. And with McCall Zerboni (if healthy) and the under-appreciated Angela Salem holding down the midfield, Western New York are capable to causing havoc without exposing their defense.
Despite Lloyd missing over two-thirds of the season, Martín spending the summer with Spain, and Kerr’s occasional call-ups to her national team, the team lead the league in goals; though like Portland, they had relatively diminished success against their Saturday adversaries. Western New York drew 1-1 at Portland in July before the teams’ dour 0-0 reverse in August.
Overall: On pure talent alone, there may not be much to separate Western New York from Portland. Even if Alex Morgan isn’t 100 percent fit (coming back from a minor knee injury), Portland has Christine Sinclair, Tobin Heath, Rachel Buehler, and Karina LeBlanc through their middle. In that sense, a Thorns victory on Saturday wouldn’t be a shock. particularly after the team came back from a 2-0 deficit to eliminate Kansas City in the semifinals. Portland’s ability to move beyond a conflicted regular season shouldn’t be underestimated.
But by all measures, Western New York seem the better team. One to 18, they’re just as talented as the Thorns but have the production to back it up. Led by Wambach, the Flash have the league’s best attack, and with Franch behind Johnson and Taylor, they also allowed fewer goals than any team in the NWSL. With players like Veronica Perez, Vicki DiMartino, and Ingrid Wells, Western New York will have the deepest squad in Saturday’s final.
They the regular season champions; they’re the form team; they’re the favorites. Rightly so.