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Analysis

NWSL Semifinal: Best offense meets best defense

MVP finalist Allie Long has played a more advanced role since Amandine Henry arrived in Portland.  (Photo copyright Meg Linehan for The Equalizer)

MVP finalist Allie Long has played a more advanced role since Amandine Henry arrived in Portland.  (Photo copyright Meg Linehan for The Equalizer)

MVP finalist Allie Long has played a more advanced role since Amandine Henry arrived in Portland. (Photo copyright Meg Linehan for The Equalizer)

2016 NWSL Semifinal
Western New York Flash at Portland Thorns FC
Providence Park, 5pm EDT (FS1/foxsportsgo.com)
Season series: Thorns won, 2-0-0
All-Time series: Thorns lead, 5-2-3
Past playoff meeting: 2013 NWSL Championship, 2-0 Thorns

Last week, Portland grabbed the Shield while the Flash sealed up the final playoff spot. Two weeks before that, Western New York scored two late, unanswered goals at Portland to nearly come back from three down and tie the game. The stage is set for an exciting rematch to see who will join Washington in Houston as the league’s best offense takes on the league’s best defense.

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Set pieces can be huge for both teams, whether it’s a Tobin Heath free kick placed on a dime or a Jess McDonald long throw-in. Both sides will want to avoid giving up those kinds of opportunities. Each team also has an array of offensive weapons, be it Lynn Williams, McDonald, and Makenzy Doniak for the Flash or Lindsey Horan, Christine Sinclair, and Allie Long for the Thorns, making it important for both defenses to keep from getting stretched and not cluster too much on one player. Expect the goalkeepers to be called on early and often; this is not a game to be battled at the midfield circle.

Western New York wants to avoid going down early. They’ve proven themselves the queen of the comeback this season, but they’ve also had a problem pulling off clear victories, going on a seven-game winless streak before closing out the season with a win over Boston. With a chance at a championship on the line, trying to pull off a comeback may prove too tall an order. Portland has been firing on all cylinders lately, having to come from behind themselves against Sky Blue before pulling out a decisive win in the second half. They want to play patiently and avoid letting the Flash counterattack put too much pressure on their defense.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Allie Long

Long is at her best when she is pushed into more of an attacking role, and with Amandine Henry on the field, she can do just that. Long has a knack for getting on the end of a ball from Heath and was recently named Player of the Month after scoring five goals in September, three of which were assisted by Heath. Long is particularly good at slicing through chaos in the box, so she will need to be closely marked on any free kick opportunity.

Jess McDonald

Second in the league in assists and one behind the league leaders for goals, McDonald has had the season of her career in Western New York. Although she will win neither Golden Boot nor MVP, her contributions to the Flash can’t be understated. McDonald brings a veteran presence to a young team, and her steadiness on the pitch has helped greatly in some of their come from behind moments. Quick on the ground and lethal in the air, McDonald will play a role one way or another in a Flash victory.

KEY MATCHUPS

Christine Sinclair vs Abby Dahlkemper

Known for her goal scoring but underrated in her playmaking, Sinclair is the spark that brings the Thorns’ offense to life. She will spend much of her time in their attacking third, and Dahlkemper will need to watch out for not only Sinclair getting herself into scoring position but also any player she can send a ball to. The Canadian international sets up plays with such simplicity it’s over and done with before anyone can blink an eye so Dahlkemper needs to keep both eyes open and on her.

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Samantha Mewis vs Amandine Henry

Both are defensive midfielders who have no problem pushing up the field, although with Sanderson out Mewis can also slot in as more of an attacking player. While Henry is a world class player in her prime and Mewis is just breaking into the international scene, both are more than capable of running a midfield and should find themselves in each other’s space plenty of times.

UNDER THE RADAR

Katherine Reynolds

One of only three on Portland’s preferred starting XI who doesn’t play for a national team, Reynolds’s contributions along the flank are often overlooked in favor of play on Portland’s left side. However, she does as good of a job as Meghan Klingenberg in getting forward and pushing into the attack, often feeding balls to Nadia Nadim, but has the pace to get back and defend as well, maintaining a strong awareness of her defensive responsibilities. She’ll likely be facing Jaelene Hinkle and Lynn Williams and will need to be on her game all night long.

McCall Zerboni

Acquired in a midseason trade from Boston, Zerboni bolstered the midfield while Mewis was away in Brazil and has continued to do so after an injury to Lianne Sanderson. Zerboni can attack, play wide, or drop back, making her a valuable asset. She is not one to shy away from tackles and is a hard player for any midfield to bypass.

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