The Portland Thorns hit the road for the third time this season, heading to Rochester, New York to take on the Western New York Flash for the first time since their hoisted the championship trophy last August.
The Thorns and Flash met twice last regular season, with neither team able to break away from each other and both regular season matches ended in draws. In the final, Tobin Heath gave the Thorns the only goal they needed in the 40th minute and Christine Sinclair iced the game in 2nd half extra time, while the Thorns defense shut out a powerful Western New York offense.
The Thorns continued to show improvement in their last match, but until Jessica McDonald had an offensive outburst in waning moments of the match, it looked like they were heading to a yet another match without a goal from the run of play. That all changed in the 84th minute and again in the 88th, as McDonald scored two goals on a tired Kansas City defense,
The Thorns defense did a solid job containing Kansas City's most dangerous weapons, as Amber Brooks joined Emily Menges and Nikki Marshall on the backline when needed, while outside backs Rebecca Moros and Courtney Niemiec pushing up and adding another layer into the attack, while Nadine Angerer made several spectacular saves to anchor the defense.
The midfield once again proved to be an area needing improvement. While they were not as lackluster as they have looked at times this season, it wasn't until Mana Shim subbed on in the 71st minute that the Thorns began to look dangerous. With Shim in the match, the Thorns looked to play with more freedom and crispness in the attack, which allowed Sinclair and McDonald to push up higher, opening up their offense and allowing them to steal the game.
This level of play will need to be replicated, and then some, when they take on the Flash. With dangerous weapons coming from all parts of the field, they represent perhaps the Thorns' stiffest challenge of the season, especially with the ever-dangerous Abby Wambach returning for the Flash. While the Thorns have shown flashes of brilliance in each match, especially from Allie Long, they need to play a complete game to get the results they want.
Western New York Flash
The Flash had the least amount of player turnover in the offseason, while adding some important piece. Defender Vicky Losada started her NWSL career with a bang, scoring two goals and adding an assist in their opener, but they saw themselves shut out in their next game, a 1-0 loss to the Red Stars two weeks ago.
Abby Wambach will be making her season debut, adding the plethora of attacking options that the Flash present, but they will be without one of their biggest, as Carli Lloyd finds herself suspended after taking a swing at Chicago's Vanessa DiBernardo in their last match, earning herself a two-match ban. Without Lloyd roaming the center of the pitch, the attack will be more focused on Wambach, who can easily take over a match when she's on, with Losada, Sam Kerr, and Adriana Martin all solid attacking options out wide.
Defensively, the Flash had to making a few changes from last season, with Adriana Franch and Alex Shalen missing the season, while Sarah Huffman and Estelle Johnson were holdouts (Johnson has since retired), with the former joining the Thorns in a trade. As a part of that trade, the Flash received Courtney Wetzel and Kat Williamson, who figure to both make appearances in the match, while Lydia Williams has been solid in goal so far, only allowing two goals thus far.
How Wambach re-integrates into the team will be a big factor in the result of this match, as she can either take over or disappear. While the Flash have more than enough weapons, they were unable to get anything going against the Red Stars, who pinned them back with their speedy attackers coming out from the wings. While that did not directly lead to them giving up a goal, which came off a corner kick, they looked vulnerable against a Red Stars side that has few weapons at the moment, which give the Thorns an area to exploit.
When the Thorns and Flash met last season, we were in for exciting matches and it doesn't seem that this game should be any different. Both teams have and are missing significant pieces, so that takes away some of the luster that we would have if both sides were full strength, which probably won't be the case for at least the first two and possibly all three matches in the series, since they all happen early in the season.
The Flash bring a bit of unpredictability to this match, since they haven't had their biggest weapon thus far and will be missing another this weekend. While Wambach's skills are a well-known quantity, if you focus solely on her, that leaves someone else open and while Angerer has played superbly right now, even the best players can't stop everything without some help.
On the Thorns attack, both Long and McDonald have to be brimming with confidence after seeing both of them get on the board last week and Long getting called into USWNT camp. They are very much on the same page with each other, showing that the connection from their college days is still very real. Thorns head coach Paul Riley said he believed that once McDonald got her first goal they would keep on coming, and this is a chance to prove him right.
Thorns Keys to the Match
Attack from the Wings - In reviewing their last match against Chicago, the Flash showed a significant weakness defending crosses from the wings. While none of these connections led to a goal, the Thorns are a much stronger attacking side who only need one opportunity to put it home, especially if their outside backs push into the attack.
Contain Wambach - This one is obvious. She is the all-time international goal scorer for a reason, but she didn't overpower the Thorns last season, so something they did worked. With a small backline though, this is easier said than done, especially on set plays.
Start Mana Shim - While Riley has said he was not impressed with her conditioning coming into the season and she has yet to play more than 55 minutes, she's been more effective in the attack than either Farrelly or Kerr. Shim gives the Thorns another attacking option and pounces on opportunities in front of net, something they've lacked so far this season.
Portland Thorns (2-0-1, 7pts.) vs. Western New York Flash (1-1-0, 3pts.)
Saturday, May 3, 2014 at 4:00pm PDT
Shalen’s Stadium – Rochester, New York