Portland Thorns FC @ Western NY Flash: NWSL Championship Edition

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

This one's for all the marbles, so let's break it down.

MATCH INFORMATION
2013 NWSL Championship

Date: Saturday, August 31, 2013 Kickoff: 5 p.m. (Pacific)

Location: Sahlen Stadium (Rochester, New York)

Forecast: 84 degrees, sunny

Referee: Kari Seitz

Assistant Referees: Veronica Perez, Kyle Atkins

Fourth Official: Margaret Domka

National TV: FOX Soccer and FOX Sports 2 / Free Trial Webstream: FOXSoccer2Go.com

Talent: Steve Cangialosi (play-by-play), Kyndra de St. Aubin (analyst), Heather Mitts (sideline)

So here we are.

Twenty-three games have come and gone in this inaugural Portland Thorns FC season, and every single one of them has provided a slew of wildly varied and compelling storylines. And we'll get to those soon enough, after the whistle blows fulltime on Saturday. But for now, we have other business to attend to, which is to preview this, the (yes, I have to say it) first ever NWSL championship game, between Thorns FC and the Rochester Wambachs Western New York Flash.

I have no prediction for this game. You couldn't pay me to come up with one. All I can do is lay the groundwork for discussion, and then we'll see what happens on Saturday. So here we go, the tale of two teams, more or less:

Final Form

Western New York

Western New York slid under the radar for much of the first half of the year (the giant radar blips being FC Kansas City and Sky Blue FC, for quite a while) before gathering steam and winning the league on the final day of the regular season, courtesy of a 2-1 win over the Boston Breakers

The Flash appeared relatively unchallenged in their subsequent 2-0 semifinal toppling of SBFC on August 24 at Sahlen Stadium, behind a brace from Carli Lloyd. While Sky Blue whispered at the goal a few times, the Flash never really appeared threatened and played convincingly like the better side, in no small part due to head coach Aaran Lines' disciplined game plan. Lines was third in the Coach of the Year voting, but his team's recent form and eight-game unbeaten streak probably have many a voter wishing they could re-cast.

Last five games: 3-0-2

Portland Thorns FC

The Thorns come into this match after a topsy-turvy season that culminated in a wild 3-2 come-from-behind semi-final win over FCKC, an overtime game in which Portland's final 60 minutes were the finest form we've seen from them all season. As Alex Morgan cheered on her team (and grouched at the ref*) from the sideline, it was a victory culled from unlikely sources. While Christine Sinclair contributed in a variety of ways (she seemed particularly prone to defense-freezing dummies that day), it was sub Tiffany Weimer and the somewhat maligned Allie Long who provided the heroics in the form of the equalizer and go-ahead goals, respectively. Tobin Heath supplied the Thorns' first goal before being subbed off after aggravating her mysterious foot injury**.

Last five games: 2-2-1

Previous Matchups

It's hard to conclude much from the short history between these two teams. Their first matchup was a real barnburning affair at Jeld-Wen on July 14, a game that featured plenty of offense; the only reason it ended in a draw was that the goalkeepers both slipped into some kind of magic Jedi-mind state and staved off the other team's parries with a number of spectacular saves. The most spectacular, of course, was Karina LeBlanc's block of Abby Wambach's 83rd-minute penalty kick that, had she converted it, would have given the Flash a 2-1 lead.

The only other meeting between the Thorns and the Flash was almost the inverse: A dull 0-0 affair on August 10 at Sahlen Stadium in which both sides looked sluggish, although the Flash forced LeBlanc into having to make a season-high 10 saves. Franch also made some essential saves on what few chances the Thorns managed to put together.

How They Scored on Us

Sam Kerr saw Wambach manhandling Kat Williamson in the box and wisely served the ball up to her. Wambach got enough of a foot on the ball to flick it over LeBlanc's outstretched arms at 37'.

How We Scored on Them

Sinclair crossed the ball into the box, Alex Morgan made a cheeky little dummy run at it but left it for Mana Shim, who streaked out of nowhere and buried it for the 38' equalizer.

Matchups

Keepers

Franch lead the NWSL this year with 98 saves, complemented by a .910 GAA and seven shutouts. The Oklahoma State product has played with incredible consistency, especially for a rookie, and combines that with a marked ability to make spectacular saves as well.

LeBlanc was second in the NWSL with 92 saves and had a 1.095 GAA and seven clean sheets herself. LeBlanc made some downright unbelievable saves this season, but she was prone to occasionally letting shots slip in that she should have saved.

Backline

Western New York was allocated a grand total of zero defensive players, but the experienced Lines put together what ended up being one of the best backlines in the league. The middle is held down by draft pick Estelle Johnson and free agent Brittney Taylor. The outside backs were Katherine Reynolds and Alex Sahlen, but when Sahlen was sidelined with a season-ending injury, midfielder Sarah Huffman stepped into her role and has held down the fort admirably.

Portland's defense hasn't exactly been a fortress, but it hasn't been a straw house, either. The backline of Marian Dougherty, Williamson, Rachel Buehler, and Nikki Marshall may be anchored by two USWNT vets, but it's Marshall and Williamson who have been pleasant surprises. Marshall's confidence in her ability to get forward has evolved steadily with each game, and Williamson has played well above her rookie status, and in fact has tended to shut Wambach down pretty effectively. The problem is, however, that this line has given up a number of goals in the early parts of games, forcing Portland to play catch-up, and a number of late goals, resulting in draws or losses that should have been wins.

Midfield

It's notable that Carli Lloyd, who has established herself as an elite attacking midfielder in this league, with eight goals in 15 games, didn't play in the first match between these two teams -the match where Portland looked every bit as good as the Flash. Lloyd has feasted on opposing, Wambach-focused defenses, and in the past few games has been on one of those scoring tears she gets on. Even if the Thorns manage to shut both her and Wambach down, they have to deal with a lineup of lesser-known, quality middies who themselves are plenty capable of drawing blood  --namely Sam Kerr, who is young but has tallied six goals and five assists this season.

As the Thorns midfield goes, so do the Thorns. All season long, this group has endured a mix-and-match lineup that struggled to find chemistry, as well as struggling with linking up to the offense. The midfield is much improved since the arrival of Heath, but I still think the key here (especially if Heath doesn't play or has limited minutes) is which Allie Long shows up. Long has come under fire for a good deal of the season for her inconsistent play, inability to keep possession, and persistent fouling, all of which worsened when she was forced into the role of defensive midfielder after Becky Edwards's season-ending ACL tear. On Saturday Long has the unenviable task of trying to keep Lloyd from doing her thing, which is to say, from flying through the midfield and scoring. But, as we saw last week, an engaged and attacking Allie Long can turn a game around. Her strength and physicality will be an asset.

Coming in a close second as a midfield barometer is Angie Kerr. She lost her starting role at the beginning of the year after some inconsistent play, but since she's returned to the starting XI she has excelled at building up play and has fired off some bullets at opposing keepers, although one has yet to find home.

Up Top

Let's get this out of the way. Here's a consolidation of what I've gleaned from online reports about Alex Morgan's status for Saturday's game: She is training in a large brace, but she is training. She told the media on Friday "It's as close as you can get to 100 [percent]...there's still twinges here and there." Other reports indicate she's moving fairly well. So will she play? "It's a gametime decision," she said Friday. "I want to play. I always want to play. I wanted to play last week."

So much metaphorical weight has been put upon Morgan's knee, I'm surprised it hasn't snapped under the pressure, brace or no, but that heft is largely misplaced. It's Heath's foot that we should worry about more, and judging from the fact that Heath hasn't trained all week, we should probably be worrying a lot. The Thorns have survived without Morgan -succeeded, in fact- but largely due to the boost, stability, and flexibility Heath has given the midfield.

That said, one reason why the Heath's magic has been so important is that, sans Morgan, this offense is less tempted by long ball tactics. Which is good, in terms of long-term success and soccer philosophy, but it also means your midfield is going to have to perform to get the ball to the likes of Sinclair and Dani Foxhoven, who recently has been starting up top, and Tiffany Weimer, who has taken on the supersub role. That role has taken to her, as well --with a goal and three assists, Weimer's played a part in three of the Thorns' last four goals. Foxhoven has earned some quality shots that have just missed, and Sinclair, at last breathing the fresh air of the offensive third, has bumped up her game. If the attack continues its trend of building from the back, Sinc, Foxhoven, Weimer, Angie Kerr, and Shim should all have their chances. If Morgan plays and the Thorns revert to their old tactics, we could be in for a long night. Obviously, best case scenario is Morgan plays, but the gameplan, strategy, and execution remain the same as what we saw in Kansas City last week.

Coaches

Aaran Lines has lead Western New York to three straight championship wins (in three different leagues), since taking the reins in 2009. One thing that helped his Flash team in the Sky Blue game was his choice to switch from a 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3, which allowed the Flash's offensive players more room to operate. This could cause problems for our defense, which tends to allow players way too much space, but could also play into Marshall and Dougherty's ability to make overlapping runs and provide service into the box.

In her first year as a head coach at any level, Cindy Parlow Cone has made some questionable substitutions and other missteps, but of late seems to have settled on a lineup that works and has managed the game much more logically. I don't envy her position though: Does she play Alex Morgan, with a championship on the line? If so, when? If Heath can't go, how much does she fiddle with her lineup?

Statistics You Can Interpret However You'd Like

Lloyd and Wambach have a combined 19 goals this season. Portland's Christine Sinclair and Alex Morgan have 16 between them.

WNY was 8-1-2 at home this season. Portland was 6-2-3.

WNY allowed 21 goals at home this season. Portland scored 13 on the road.

Prediction

Your guess is as good as mine. Discuss.

*In way that was endearing, not diva-ish, I thought.

**And by "aggravating," I mean "putting it a place where Desiree Scott could step on in."

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