Five questions for NWSL title game
Portland Thorns FC and the Western New York Flash meet Saturday night in Rochester, N.Y., in the first championship game in National Women's Soccer League history. What are some storylines to look for with a title on the line between teams that drew in both regular-season meetings?
How did we get here?
Let's start with the basics. It may not be the championship game everyone expected, but it's a final few are surprised to see.
You have three of the sport's most recognizable stars in Alex Morgan, Christine Sinclair and Abby Wambach.
On one side, you have the new league's signature franchise from the Pacific Northwest. On the other side, a familiar face from another soccer hotbed that is trying to win its fourth consecutive championship in its fourth different league.
Narrative certainly favored this final. So did a lot of pundits more interested in personnel.
Before the season, the excellent Equalizer women's soccer blog solicited predictions from a panel of eight experts. Four of the eight picked Thorns FC to finish first. Two picked the Flash to finish first. Only two experts submitted top threes that didn't include both teams.
Portland became the league's signature team the moment allocation served up both Morgan and Sinclair, two of the most prolific goal scorers in international soccer (and former teammates with Western New York in WPS). The profile rose as fans flocked to home games in larger numbers than any other women's professional sports team had witnessed in this country. Tobin Heath, another allocation prize, added more star power when she returned from professional duty overseas at midseason. The odd team out in a three-way tie atop the regular-season standings, Portland lived up to a strong road record by coming back from two goals down for a 3-2 overtime win against FC Kansas City in a thrilling semifinal.
Only a handful of Flash players remain from the team that won the WPSL-Elite championship last summer, let alone the teams that won the 2011 WPS title and 2010 W-League title. But the infrastructure and institutional knowledge of those titles, notably coach Aaran Lines, remain. Not that it hurt to land native daughter Wambach and prolific midfielder Carli Lloyd in allocation. After a rough April in which the Flash took just one point from three games, they got on a roll and scored more goals and conceded fewer than any other team in the league. Gifted home-field advantage when the Chicago Red Stars scored a late equalizer in the regular-season finale at FC Kansas City, Western New York deserved every bit of a 2-0 semifinal win against Sky Blue FC.
What role will injuries play Saturday?
As you might have heard, since it is the most discussed knee this side of Robert Griffin III, Morgan is ailing. She has yet to play since spraining the MCL in her left knee in a game on Aug. 7. She was in uniform and theoretically available during the semifinal win in Kansas City but didn't see the field. As to her status for the final? Morgan told the Oregonian she will be 100 percent. Coach Cindy Parlow Cone sounded slightly more equivocal, although she did note Morgan went through full training earlier this week and looked "great." As Jeff Di Veronica suggests in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, it does seems the questions are more along the lines of how much she'll play and how effective she'll be, rather than if she'll play.
Heath left the semifinal with what was described as a foot injury but appears set for the final. And while Morgan and Heath are names that turn a lot of heads, the Flash have their own health concerns. Captain McCall Zerboni, part of the franchise's past two championship teams and part of a very effective tandem in the back of the midfield with Angela Salem, came on as a substitute in the semifinal win against Sky Blue after missing two games with a calf injury. Among the league leaders in fouls committed and fouls absorbed, her contributions don't show up in the box score but have a great deal to do with the score.
Will experience matter in goal?
FC Kansas City midfielder Erika Tymrak was voted the league's outstanding rookie, and there is scant fault to find in a season that earned her a place on coach Tom Sermanni's national team roster for next week's game against Mexico. But if Tymrak had a better season than Western New York's Adrianna "AD" Franch, it was by a slim margin. The sixth pick of the college draft, and the only goalkeeper selected in the first two rounds, Franch not only finished second to Tymrak for rookie honors but also finished second to Kansas City's Nicole Barnhart as the best keeper.
Perhaps no performance better indicated why than the one Franch turned in against these same Thorns on July 14. Her nine saves -- some of the more-than-routine sort -- helped preserve a 1-1 draw. But there is a reason why goalkeepers, from 34-year-old Nadine Angerer to the extreme example of 42-year-old Brad Friedel, thrive for so many years. Someone with experience is someone with value in goal.
Someone like, say, Portland's Karina LeBlanc, the über-veteran who played for Canada in multiple World Cups and Olympics and helped the Los Angeles Sol reach the inaugural WPS championship game as the No. 1 seed. In that same July game, LeBlanc turned away Abby Wambach's penalty kick in the closing minutes to similarly preserve the draw.
Franch has rarely looked like a rookie. Now wouldn't be the time to start.
What about the supporting casts?
There is a considerable amount of star power in this game, obviously, but both teams are also here because they made the right decisions filling the rest of their rosters before the season and benefited from players rising to the occasion when challenges arose.
Consider Portland's Allie Long, Last week's hero when she scored the eventual winner in overtime, Long played more minutes this season than any other Thorn, shifting roles on the fly when defensive midfielder Becky Edwards went down with a season-ending injury. Portland wasn't as effective without Edwards, scuffling through a pair of winless streaks after her injury, but they made it to Saturday's final -- literally because of what Long did last week but also because of what she, Meleana Shim, Nikki Marshall, Kathryn Williamson and others did all season.
The same goes for Western New York with players like Brittany Taylor. At times a forward during a standout career at the University of Connecticut, she earned a look from the national team as an outside back a couple of years ago. She signed as one of Western New York's five free agents in January and settled in so well at center back that she earned a place on the all-league second team. Western New York started with offensive talent in Wambach and Lloyd, but the league-best defense, including Salem and Zerboni, is locally crafted.
Are the Flash favorites at home?
That the game is taking place in Rochester ultimately came down to goal differential between the three teams tied for first, but there is another point of separation that may have more bearing on this game. Western New York totaled 15 points (4-1-3) in eight regular-season games against the other three playoff teams, while Portland totaled 10 points (2-3-4) in nine games against playoff teams (both teams obviously picked up additional such wins in the semifinals).
Western New York's lone loss in those games between playoff teams came on opening day on an own goal. Counting the semifinal against Sky Blue FC, the league's other playoff teams were responsible for just two goals in five games against Western New York in Rochester.
Portland can counter with its impressive 6-2-3 road record in the regular season, better even than its record in front of all those fans at home. The Thorns certainly looked the part of road warriors in recovering in the second half and overtime last week against FC Kansas City. But all six of those road wins in the regular season came against the league's bottom four sides. Winning back-to-back road games against equals would be something to celebrate, not expect.
So should the Flash be favored? Yes. But not by enough to remove much doubt as to the outcome, which is how it should be in a final.