It’s set—the first-ever National Women’s Soccer League championship will take place in Rochester, N.Y. (sound familiar?), with the Western New York Flash hosting Portland Thorns FC on Saturday, August 31 at 8 p.m. ET (live on Fox Sports 2 and FoxSoccer2go.com).
Portland advanced after beating FC Kansas City in a thrilling 3-2 extra time win during the early playoff game in Overland Park, Kan. The Thorns erased a two-goal deficit, taking advantage of Kansas City’s late collapses.
Western New York, meanwhile, dominated an undermanned Sky Blue FC team at Sahlen’s Stadium, which Carli Lloyd scoring twice to lift her side to a 2-0 win and into the final.
The league certainly won’t be unhappy with getting an Alex Morgan vs. Abby Wambach matchup at a soccer specific stadium that actually has some women’s soccer history, too. Now about Morgan’s health…
Five immediate talking points to the Western New York-Portland matchup:
—Expect questions about the health of Morgan and Tobin Heath to dominate the storylines during the week. Morgan was available Saturday but did not play. Heath started but came off 74th minute after having her right foot stepped on by Desiree Scott.
Morgan skipping the semifinal win over FC Kansas City was a clearly a blessing to the Thorns. She warmed up with a brace on her left knee and on multiple occasions was seen loosening up on the sideline. But the Thorns closed their deficit too early for Cindy Parlow Cone to consider using her and after that the Thorns were mostly on the front foot. Assuming Morgan was really fit enough to go against KC—and there is no reason to think otherwise—she should be some sort of factor in the final.
At the moment Heath should be considered more troubling. She was held out of the season finale and this week’s injury report indicated she had a sore right foot. A Thorns’ spokesperson said late Saturday they would not know the extent of Heath’s latest injury until the team returns to Portland and she can undergo tests. She was carried off the field and was later seen hopping back and after regulation was seen hopping back and forth to the huddle without putting any weight on her right leg.
—These two teams played arguably the game of the season at JELD-WEN Field on July 14. They tied 1-1, but only thanks to some serious heroics from both Karina LeBlanc and Adrianna Franch in goal. They combined for 16 saves in a wild affair that, in retrospect, maybe should have been some indication that they could be on a collision course down the road (although FC Kansas City played far better than Portland until these last three weeks, when it matters most). Meleana Shim answered Abby Wambach’s first half goal one minute later and the goalkeepers stole the show from there. The game also lacked Lloyd, who was at a friend’s wedding. Given how critical Lloyd has been to the Flash, that’s a major absence.
—On the flip side, these two teams more recently combined for one of the worst games of the season, a 0-0 draw in Rochester on August 10, but that was more a result of silly scheduling that saw each team playing its fourth game in 11 days. The result did help give the Thorns confidence after they had just given up nine goals in four games, including a loss in Boston that also brought injury to Morgan. Both teams looked happy to play for a draw on the day. Hopefully the final isn’t an overly caution tilt, as finals usually go.
—Four years/four leagues/four titles: We know it gets repetitive but it really would be a marvelously unique accomplishment if the Flash can pull off this feat. It can definitely be overstated as an accomplishment—and it’s not like the Flash or anyone else wanted WPS to fold after 2011—but it shows the franchise has a championship mentality and an extremely sharp coach who is able to bring the best out of teams on many different levels. Not only does Aaran Lines build these teams, he is able to coach them and get results when the money is on the line.
“When they come in, first thing when I’m talking to players, I ask do you want to win a championship,” Lines said after winning the WPSL Elite championship last summer. “Most of them reply yes. That’s the easy part. Then it’s about making them believe that they’re good enough to win.”
This year’s version of the Flash are clearly good enough to win. It’s something they have to do only one more time to finish off the four in four.
—The final will be played 283 days after NWSL was announced as a nameless league last November 21. In that time teams stocked rosters, sold tickets, put streaming packages together, drew up a schedule, and played a season. Most of these endeavors were far from perfect in their execution. NWSL leadership has constantly spouted about having a short run-up to the inaugural season. That is true. But that excuse expires the day after the final. Clubs appear optimistic about their business plans and as one holdover WPS owner said recently, “This is the first time we are not ending the season in crisis.”
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