NWSL Semifinal: Best offense meets best defense

Chelsey Bush October 1, 2016 29
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.

  • newsouth

    Great Icelandic

    • Observed

      She will be first to go in an expansion draft. But Dagny is also never going to be replaced by Shim, etc.

      • Steglitz49

        I suspect that any team joining in an expansion will have taken note of what Orlando got from the system and demand the same coin.

      • mockmook

        Internationals aren’t part of the expansion drafts.

    • Steglitz49

      Is Lars Lagerbäck coaching Portland for this match? Will WNY counter with a Volcano of their own?

  • Silver Frost

    I won’t be surprised if WNY pull one out. A close game favors them. I suspect Riley parks the bus and counters.

    • Constant Weeder

      Not really his style, but we’ll see tomorrow.

      • Craigaroo

        Agree. Not his style and he doesn’t have the team for it. They’re young, they’re fast — they’re not dour, experienced veterans. He said as much in an interview with Meg Linehan, that they weren’t going to bunker and I believe him. link: http://www.excellesports.com/news/nwsl-playoff-preview-wny-flash/

        • Steglitz49

          Portland finished 9 points (3 wins) above WNY but they had essentially the same GD +16 vs +14. Portland conceded less goals than WNY — 19 vs 26 — the lowest in the whole of the NWSL.

          From this I conclude that Portland’s defense, or at least their GKs, is stronger than WNY’s. The attack is more difficult to decipher because goals are easier to score against tomato-cans and bottom-feeders, while winning by 1 goal nets you 3 points.

          Maybe Portland should park their bus and live off counter-attacks?

          • DNG

            Portland won’t ‘park the bus’ but they will most likely try and defend deep to neutralize WNY’s speed. They will still attack with numbers in they have the ball though.

          • Arcie Tillydee

            This is exactly what I expect. It’s how Parsons approached WNY last time, and it worked. Sure, WNY were really good for the first 15 minutes, and they clawed back a couple of goals…but the latter were both on a couple of defensive blunders, not from dominating the run of play. WNY simply _has_ to press high, or Portland will almost completely dominate possession, and that will lead to a ton of opportunities for the Thorns. Portland has the luxury of being able to play more defensively (that is, they have the more solid defense), but they won’t really bunker.

          • DNG

            I don’t even think the Flash created many good opportunities in the opening 25 minutes where they were great at disrupting the Thorns’ possession. They weren’t able to do much more than cross, which the Thorns had covered, and take long shots that didn’t threaten Betos. Portland mistakes in the second half were the only reason that match was close. Still I think that the Flash are the type of team that can cause the Thorns some difficulties and wouldn’t be shocked by an upset.

    • DNG

      If Portland plays their game, they should win. I do give the Flash a decent chance at the upset though. They are the type of team that has given the Thorns trouble this year.

    • Steglitz49

      Will it be “Miracle on Plastic” or “Bomb in Portland”?

  • Constant Weeder

    Both teams know they need to focus for 90 minutes. The one that only manages 89 will lose.

    • Steglitz49

      After 90′ of focus follows 30′ of more focus, then penalties. Then the team with a German or Swede in it might win.

      • Constant Weeder

        How about an Icelander?

  • Steglitz49

    Sounds like US vs Sweden in Brasilia all over again. Who will bomb this time?

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    • Ethan

      Well, Horan’s goal was fairly similar to Morgan’s in that match. However, this match seems incredibly open (just following via Twitter).

    • Chak Khan

      Has this gone down as the greatest in WoSo game compared to the USWNT vs Brazil in 2011?

      • Steglitz49

        Portland bombed? The greatest WoSo game is probably still the 2011 WC final.

  • htm222

    McDonald and Williams are only “best offense” because they played boston a million times. Their chances in this game are slim to none, but best of luck to them… David. vs. Goliath up in portland today

    • FawcettFan14

      That 3-2 game a few weeks ago did not indicate David vs. Goliath. It was a close game. WNY had the run of play for the opening 15-20 minutes, with several wasted chances, until Portland scored. After going behind 3-0 they closed the gap to 3-2. I think WNY is one of the teams better suited to beating Portland. With their physical play and direct style they can disrupt all the Thorns star, finesse players. We’ve seen before, when the opponents press them, put in some hard tackles, don’t give them time and space, the Thorns players will get frustrated and start appealing to the referee for calls. The best strategy is to rattle them, not let them get into their rhythm by giving them too much respect.

    • Constant Weeder

      And we all know what happened in that contest. Fortunately for Portland, overconfidence is not likely after their last encounter with WNY.

  • mockmook

    Prediction:

    POR 3 — WNY 1

    • DNG

      Well it won’t be this. This up and down game favors the Flash. Great game so far.

      • mockmook

        I forgot to account for windage 🙂

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