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NWSL Update: Western New York, Portland into league’s first title game

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If women’s soccer fans were told five months ago that first NWSL season would end with Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan in the title game, some would have happily taken it. Others would have cried conspiracy. Few would have disputed it as a boon in the league’s first year, when every bit of publicity helps.

After Saturday’s semifinals, the league has their dream matchup, though it’s still unclear if all the stars will be on stage. Whereas Wambach is guaranteed to lead her team onto the field in Rochester after Western New York eliminated Sky Blue (2-0), Morgan has not played since suffering a knee injury in Boston nearly three weeks ago. Without her, Portland upset FC Kansas City on Saturday, Allie Long’s extra time winner giving Thorns FC a 3-2 win, giving FOX Sports license to run a week’s worth of Abby vs. Alex promos ahead of Saturday’s final.

But for anybody who watched Saturday’s game in Kansas, “a 3-2 win” feels like a gross understatement. Here’s how the Thorns (and Flash) advanced to the NWSL’s first championship game:

source:  Semifinal 1: FC Kansas City 2, Portland Thorns FC 3

Favorites coming into the season, Portland slipped to third place by the time the last game was played, meaning their route to the final would go through Overland Park. In two regular season games at FCKC, Portland had only taken one point, generally being outplayed during their trips to Shawnee Mission District Stadium. Yet with Vlatko Andonovski’s team limping into the postseason — a two-game losing streak to non-playoff teams costing them first place — there was reason to doubt Kansas City carried the same quality that troubled Portland during the regular season.

Those doubts irrelevant after 25 minutes. Rookie of the Year Erika Tymrak, whose half season starting for Andonovski has earned her a national team call-up, scored from distance in the 12th minute. Melissa Henderson, goalless in 17 regular season games, beat Karina LeBlanc near the half’s mid-point, priming Portland for an embarrassing end to their season. With league MVP-to-be Lauren Holiday pulling the proverbial strings, the Thorns were getting steamrolled. Favorites before game one, eliminated at game 23, Portland’s lopsided elimination would bring joy to the throngs who’ve come to view PTFC as the NWSL’s Galactic Empire. Merritt Paulson’s Darth Vadar, and FC Kansas City were routing his stormtroopers.

Much to their chagrin, the Rebellion wasn’t meant to be. The narrative that won out in Overland Park was Kansas City’s demise, not Portland’s failure to play to their talent. Whereas the Blues once seemed destined to win the league comfortably, a slew of late capitulations over summer months (in New Jersey, Boston, Chicago, and at home against Chicago) served as a wakeup call. Only as Saturday’s collapse showed, Kansas City never woke up.

In the 35th minute Tobin Heath, playing on an obviously ailing right foot, pulled Portland within one. Tiffany Weimer, coming on strong after joining mid-season, pulled Portland even in the 65th, setting the stage for a bit of redemption. Scrutinized all season long for her play in Portland’s midfield, Allie Long forged the match-winner in the first period of extra time (103′) and, as is if to reinforce the Portland’s image as the league’s pantomime villain, spent the rest of the match committing fouls that teased a second yellow card. Like her team, though, she survived, with Portland’s 3-2 win putting them into Saturday’s final.

It was Portland’s best 90 minutes of the season, finally claiming some of their promise while on the verge of bowing out. For Kansas City, however, it was a heart-breakingly appropriate conclusion to their season. Though they seemed like the best team, their inability to finish games killed them. After this week of postseason awards ends, Kansas City will have the league’s best player, defender, rookie, goalkeeper and coach, but they’ll also have an unexpectedly early end to what has to what was ultimately a disappointing season.

source:  Semifinal 2: Western New York 2, Sky Blue FC 0

Sky Blue’s last two months were all about Saturday. Whereas Kansas City slid into the playoffs and Portland had the postseason thrust upon them, Sky Blue had the final four in the sites ever since it became clear the formula vaulted them top of the league in June was not going to carry them through August. While falling to fourth, Jim Gabarra’s team consolidated, forging their best possible formula for playoff success, though their slide left them with a nightmare playoff matchup. Western New York, the regular season champions, had beat them three times in a row, outscoring them 8-1 in the process.

Gabarra, who had played a 4-3-3 formation for most of the year, decided to throw the Flash a curve. He went 3-5-2, a system nobody had played this season in the NWSL. Whether he did that to load up in defense, get more defenders to combat Abby Wambach, or put players wide on to deal with the Flash Sam Kerr-led wing play, it seemed to cause some confusion. While Western New York were better over the first half hour, a stalemate looked possible.

Then Carli Lloyd broke through. It was a big game, so the Flash midfielder, who most know from her two goals in the 2012 Summer Olympics’ final, was obligated to step up. Clutch is what she does. Converting on a cross from fullback Katherine Reynolds in the 33rd minute, Lloyd lived up to her reputation, putting the home side in front.

Sky Blue held on for the next hour, fostering the impression they could nick an equalizer at any time, but against the league’s best defense, an attack that had come reliant on one player (forward Lisa de Vanna) never broke through. They finished the game outshot 15 to 5, losing 2-0 after Lloyd’s 93rd minute goal completed the U.S. international’s double.

Ultimately, and despite Gabarra’s attempt to change it up, the game played out exactly as expected. While Sky Blue had recovered  from their summer funk, they still didn’t have an answer for the Flash. Their new formation stalled the inevitable, but come full-time, the Flash had still controlled play, won a relatively straight forward game, and looked every bit the title favorite. They finished the regular season number one, and come kickoff in Rochester on Saturday, they’ll be favored to retain that mantle.

Final: Western New York vs. Portland Thorns FC

Ever since Kansas City’s slide began, Western New York has been the scariest team in the league. Now, with Lloyd clicking while  Wambach continues to demand the defense’s focus, the Flash are on track for their fourth title in four years (across four leagues: W-League, WPS, WPSL Elite, NWSL). In a league down to two teams, they have the best defense, the best attack, the best coaching, and home field advantage. Despite drawing both their meetings with the Thorns this season, Aaran Lines team will be deserved favorites Saturday night.

The threat Portland poses depends on their health. Heath had to leave Saturday’s game after Kansas City’s Desiree Scott stepped on her foot. She’s expected to play, but her exact status won’t be known until later this week. Likewise, what Cindy Parlow Cone can count on from Alex Morgan depends on how much the Thorns star improves. The team’s optimistic, though if she’s healthy, the coaching staff face a challenge integrating her into a team that’s gone 2-0-1 without her.

That draw came two weeks ago, when Portland visited Western New York. Both teams seemed willing to accept the stalemate, the 0-0 result playing out as one of the league’s least compelling games of the season. But without Morgan, Portland were emboldened by the shutout, their improvement in defense giving them confidence going into their season finale.

Two wins later, the Thorns have a shot at the title. And with any luck, the NWSL will get an Abby vs. Alex matchup in its inaugural final.

Looking back at Week 5 of the NWSL Season

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The NWSL went into its fifth weekend with three undefeated teams, but with wide play that gave them the ability to draw back FC Kansas City’s wingers, Western New York should have always seen as a threat to hand the Blues their first loss. Unfortunately, Vlatko Andonovski’s wingers didn’t do much to protect his fullbacks, and when direct play from the Flash took advantage of a bad night from K.C.’s central defense, Western New York had an easy route to a 2-1 win.

The Flash deserve amount of credit for recovering from a slow start, but after Kansas City’s performance last week in Tukwila, the game telling reverted the Blues’ narrative. Against Reign FC, Kansas City rebuked the notion that a new team playing away from home for the first time would struggle to adapt. Although the result was close (a 1-0 win), FC Kansas City gave their best performance of the season. “There was nothing more we could have done,” a beaming Andonvski said post-match.

On Saturday, all those concerns came back into focus. Kansas City looked like a team that didn’t know how to play on the road, their aggression tempered as the home side came out stronger. At the beginning, they held the ball reasonably well, but the Flash’s decisiveness dictated the match. With Veronica Perez underneath the strikers creating an overload on Sam Kerr’s side, Western New York was again able to double down on their wide play, with right back/team president Alex Sahlen having her best night of the season. By the time FCKC woke up, they were down two, their lack of composure at the back digging too deep of a hole.

For Kansas City, while Western New York will always present a series of specific and serious problems, the game seemed like a one-off, in performance if not result. And it’s the type of thing that happens on the road. You’ve traveled, you’re in a new place, playing on an unfamiliar surface, against a team usually close to their peak conditions. Bad results happen.

Despite their strong performance in Seattle, the Blues are not immune to those challenges. As a result, the league is down to two undefeated teams.

source:  TEAM THAT STOOD OUT

It’s not just that Western New York won, or that they beat FCKC, or that Kansas City is considered one of the league’s two preeminent contenders. It’s how Aaran Lines’ team won, displaying a formula that could make them a dark horse contender.

As discussed last week, 19-year-old Sam Kerr’s going to be a problem for most of the league’s fullbacks. That Australian international can function on the left or right flank lets Lines pick on the weaker defender. With Veronica Perez’s ability to come across the field and play underneath, the Flash can overload . That leads to balls into the area and chances for Abby Wambach (who scored twice on Saturday) and Adrianna Martin.

And Carli Lloyd, who came on late against Kansas City, is back. Sarah Huffman was on the bench. McCall Zerboni’s drawing attention for her work in midifeld and holder Angela Salem just gave her best performance of the season. Even when they don’t have the tactical advantages they had against the Blues, Western New York has enough strength in the middle to compete.

Lines has steered his team through a tough start, and after their second straight win, the Flash sit in fourth place. If remains to be seen if their defense can hold up (especially with goalkeeper Adrianna Franch coming back to earth), but having weathered an opening storm, the Flash may be ready to embrace their upside.

Here’s the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle’s coverage from Sahlen’s Stadium, with Lines, Wambach, Lloyd and Becky Sauerbrunn speaking after the Flash’s big win:

MVP … OF THE WEEK

It wasn’t a great week for individual performances; at least, as far as a Player of the Week-type performance is concerned. Amid the myriad strong displays across the week’s five games, nobody distinguished themselves as the outright star, even if Wambach’s double in Rochester means she’s destined to win the league-wide honors.

PST’s award, however goes to Lori Lindsey, whose performance in central midfield for the Washington spurred the Spirit to a draw against unbeaten Boston. Crucial to Washington’s buildup play (that often resulted in Diana Matheson torching the Breakers down the right), Lindsey put in her strongest performance of the year, a day that was capped by one of the league’s best goals to date:

(GIF courtesy of the Tumblr site USWNTGIFs)

Goals are often overrated, with stats columns and the passage of time allowing easy scores off a terrible turnovers to carry the same weight as incredible finishes from tough angles. But now, in this not-so-far-removed moment, we can acknowledge Lindsey’s goal and admire the skill in the hit. We can marvel that it drew Washington even with an unbeaten foe, and we can acknowledge her as our Player of the Week.

NWSL Results

Date Home Score Road
Wed., May 8 Sky Blue 1-1 Chicago
Sat., May 11 Washington 1-1 Boston
Sat., May 11 W. New York 2-1 Kansas City
Sun., May 12 Chicago 0-2 Portland

Also of note: Christine Sinclair seems to have an obligatory spot here, especially after that ball that led to Portland’s second goal; Christie Rampone may be the league’s first libero, and teammate Lisa De Vanna’s found a scoring touch to match her all-energy menace; Kristie Mewis nearly broke out (and almost broke a Sahlen’s Stadium crossbar); Heather O’Reilly became a fixture in Robyn Gayle’s nightmares; Diana Matheson continues to be a game-defining presence; and don’t forget our unsung hero, below.

ROUND’S BIG STORY

The reports from Yurcak Field after Seattle’s Saturday 2-0 loss depict a broken Seattle team, one that may be the first to bow out of NWSL contention. With four losses in a row, Reign FC sit at the bottom of the league, their combination of missing stars (Megan Rapinoe, Hope Solo, Amy Rodriguez), tough schedule (having played Portland and Kansas City a combined three times) and one home date in five leaving the team deflated and, potentially, hopeless.

According to those at Yurcak, frustrating goals conceded early in New Jersey left head coach Laura Harvey deflated. After the match, she took her team to task, and while her post-game comments have been pointed after each of her team’s losses, the newly-imported boss was particularly frank on Saturday – her conclusions short and too-the-point:

(from Equalizer Soccer)

“We were nowhere near good enough in the first half,” Harvey said. Asked to expand she said, “Everything. We weren’t good enough in possession. We weren’t good enough defensively. We looked completely (dis)organized. We looked like we haven’t trained. We did pretty much the exact opposite of what we prepared for. We just looked like a team that had never played together before.”

It was an Olsenian diatribe that leaves Seattle in the same place as MLS’s D.C. United: desperate, clueless, and searching for answers. With one point through five games, Seattle now face two pivotal home games – games that could restore the notion that circumstances have conspired against the new club. On Thursday, Reign FC host Washington before welcoming Sky Blue on Sunday night.

NWSL Standings

Pos. Team GP Pts. +/- PST
Rank
1 Portland 5 13 +6 1
2 Sky Blue 5 10 +3 5
3 Boston 4 8 +4 3
5 W. New York 5 7 +0 4
5 Kansas City 4 7 +2 2
6 Washington 5 3 -2 6
7 Chicago 5 2 -7 7
8 Seattle 5 1 -6 8

It’s two games in four days (with no travelling) against beatable sides. At least, on talent alone, Seattle should be favorites at home this week (though opinion’s decided on second place Sky Blue, see below). If they get full points, Harvey’s team will be on seven through as many rounds. Then they can convince themselves they’re surviving their spring ordeal.

But Saturday’s loss – giving away two early goals to Sky Blue – was heartbreaking. Michelle Betos’s weak punch to Danesha Adams for an open net goal? The inexplicable giveaway that allowed De Vanna an easy finish? These are the type of things bad teams let happen.

After that display at Yurcak on Saturday, Harvey’s task shifted from survival to salvation.

UNSUNG HERO

Sky Blue may be in second place, but look to their schedule (not their squad) for explanations. They’ve yet to face Portland. They’ve yet to face Kansas City. They haven’t played Boston, and their win over Western New York came before the Flash started piecing things together. They are the anti-Reign. Their record is outpacing their performance.

That could change, though. Kelley O’Hara has been unexpectedly (and unsustainably) disappointing, and while Lisa De Vanna’s work rate matches any striker’s in the league, her finishing has let her down. If it weren’t for one player’s timely contributions, Sky Blue wouldn’t have the luxury of waiting for answers.

That player is Sophie Schmidt, whose role high in Jim Gabarra’s midfield has already led to three goals – half of her team’s output. The Canadian international has never been a big scorer, finding goal only once in 17 professional games between magicJack and Sweden’s Kristianstads, but benefitting from the work of de Vanna, Schmidt’s become Sky Blue’s most dependable option.

Last Wednesday, the 24-year-old was in the right place at the right time, heading Kendall Johnson’s late cross past Erin McLeod to give Sky Blue a late lead against the visiting Red Stars. Sky Blue would eventually concede an equalizer, but the goal was another example of Schmidt’s timely contributions.

Curiously, Canadian internationals seem to be making a home playing behind their team’s strikers. Christine Sinclair’s been forced to drop into the position in Portland. The Reign have recently used Kaylyn Kyle behind their striker, while Diana Matheson, while doing damage down the Spirit’s right, has also had a presence underneath.

Schmidt’s also occupying that spot, one that is providing a disproportionate amount of Sky Blue’s output. If she can continue chipping in goals, Sky Blue may prove playoff contenders … once de Vanna and O’Hara can find net, too.

LINGERING QUESTIONS …

Have we seen the last of Angie Kerr in Portland? … What is going on with Kelley O’Hara? … How close is Boston’s holding duo (Joanna Lohman, Mariah Nogueira) to Kansas City’s (Desiree Scott, Jen Buczkowski)? … Or Seattle’s new duo (Jess Fislock, Keelin Winters) … Who goes to the bench once Carli Lloyd and Sarah Huffman are fully fit? … How long until one of Tiffany McCarty, Stephanie Ochs, or Caroline Miller find goals in Washington? … And are these teams ready for the approaching international break?

LOOKING FORWARD

There are two mid-week matches on Thursday, with Portland and Seattle hosting the first of their Thursday-Sunday double dips. Though Boston’s trip to Kansas City may prove the week’s most-telling (and competitive) match,  JELD-WEN’s second NWSL game gives us a change to examine the young Spirit’s visit to league-leading Portland.

Thursday, May 16
Seattle Reign FC vs. Washington Spirit
Portland Thorns FC vs. Sky Blue FC

Saturday, May 18
FC Kansas City vs. Boston Breakers

Sunday, May 19
Seattle Reign FC vs. Sky Blue FC
Portland Thorns FC vs. Washington Spirit