Photo by ISIPhotos.com
By MIKE McCALL
When the National Women’s Soccer League was dreamed up as the latest incarnation of a U.S. women’s pro league, this is almost exactly what they had in mind.
The inaugural NWSL Championship will come down to the faceoff that many predicted and that undoubtedly will grab the most headlines: U.S. star forward Abby Wambach and the Western New York Flash against U.S. star forward Alex Morgan and the Portland Thorns.
There are just two hitches in the plan. First, Saturday’s 8 p.m. kickoff will be at Sahlen’s Stadium in Rochester, N.Y. That venue will do just fine, but there’s no doubt that playing at Portland’s JELD-WEN Field — which hosted some of the largest crowds in American women’s soccer history this year — was the best-case scenario.
And beyond that, there’s no telling how much Morgan will be able to live up to her end of that showdown with Wambach after spraining her MCL earlier this month.
But enough about what this game doesn’t have — there are plenty of reasons to keep an eye on the title match, which will be nationally televised live on FOX Sports 2 and online at FOXSoccer2Go.
Here’s a look at the main storylines:
It’s no surprise to see either of these teams in the final, as both were tapped to be title contenders from the start. Portland landed a gaudy player allocation led by Morgan, while Wambach’s presence along with her club’s pedigree made the Flash a favorite.
These two tied for first in the regular season (along with FC Kansas City), but WNY took the NWSL Shield by way of a tiebreaker. Now, the Flash will be going for a fourth straight title across four leagues since 2010. This is a much different squad from those previous winners — the Thorns’ leading duo of Morgan and Christine Sinclair both won titles with New York — but reaching this point again is a testament to coach Aaran Lines and the way the club is run.
During the season, WNY never enjoyed the kind of front-running success that FCKC, Portland or Sky Blue FC did, but steady performance over time paid off, as the Flash posted the top attack and defense in the league and snatched the title on the last day of the year.
Meanwhile, the Thorns were up and down. They didn’t rampage through the schedule like some thought they would, and a loaded offense didn’t quite hit its stride. But now is a chance to turn all that into a footnote and validate the preseason hype.
STARS ALL AROUND
There’s more to this than Wambach vs. Morgan as well. The Flash will look to Carli Lloyd (eight goals) and Samantha Kerr (six goals, five assists) for additional firepower, and the Thorns have the enviable duo of Sinclair (eight goals) and midseason acquisition Tobin Heath.
In all, four of the league’s top nine goalscorers will be on the field, between Wambach (11), Morgan (eight), Lloyd and Sinclair. The question is whether Morgan and Heath, who aggravated a foot injury in the semifinals, will be in top form, although coach Cindy Parlow said she expects them to play.
Regular season results don’t provide much insight into this one. The teams met twice, ending in two vastly different draws. The first was a 1-1 finish characterized by fluid attacking play and heroic performances from Portland keeper Karina LeBlanc and WNY keeper Adrianna Franch.
The second was a 0-0 result characterized by, well, not much. The third meeting will break the mold, as it will go to two 15-minute periods of extra time followed by penalty kicks in the case of a draw.
HEAD TO HEAD
In the end, the biggest storyline is the most obvious. The NWSL needs a good showing from Wambach and Morgan to finish strong in its first year. This is the league’s equivalent of a Kobe-vs.-LeBron final, and it needs it to pack a punch.
It’s also a subplot of one of the most intriguing aspects of the U.S. women’s national team. Wambach is the living legend, respected leader and feared goal-scorer, but by the time the team makes it to the World Cup in 2015, the faces of the squad might just be the young ones, led by Morgan.
The thought of replacing Wambach is a wild and unnecessary one for now, but the torch is slowly being passed to Morgan, and Saturday’s final could be one of the major moments in that transition.
What do you think will happen on Saturday? Will the Flash make the home crowd proud, or will Portland rise to meet expectations? How healthy will Morgan and Heath be, and can the Thorns win without them?
Share your thoughts below.