The Washington Spirit may have questions about who to start at center back and a wide range of forwards to choose from, but the Western New York Flash are heading into today’s NWSL championship game with no such problem. Even head coach Paul Riley’s suspension won’t have a major impact on the Flash’s starting eleven, which appears to be more or less set in stone. Even with Scott Vallow running the show for WNY in today’s final, there won’t be any major deviation from the norm.
Western New York made a mid-season move to play a more traditional diamond midfield by trading for Lianne Sanderson (who spent a season with the short-lived D.C. United Women), but the English playmaker tore her ACL last month. The Flash didn’t have a standard #10 to replace her with at the point of the diamond, so they’ve moved to more of an asymmetrical 4132 as a result:
In goal, Canadian national teamer Sabrina D’Angelo has been first choice outside of the Olympic break. She’s been stable enough, but there seems to be a ceiling on her ability to make top-drawer saves. It’s worth noting that, for Canada, D’Angelo backs up Spirit goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe, who is in turn backing up Washington’s starter Kelsey Wys.
Elizabeth Eddy started every game of the season for the Flash, and is a lock at right back. She doesn’t get a ton of press, but Eddy is a persistent and solid defender who also has the work rate that Riley’s high-tempo, aggressive approach requires from both fullback positions. If there’s a knock on Eddy, it’s an occasional tendency to give away fouls in dangerous spots.
On the other side, Jaelene Hinkle will be a regular presence attacking up the left flank. Hinkle is on the fringes of the US national team on the basis of her speed and attacking ability, and she also takes plenty of WNY’s set pieces. The Spirit may look to take advantage of Hinkle’s attacking instincts, though, by stationing Crystal Dunn on the right side of their front three.
Center back Abby Dahlkemper hasn’t missed a second for the Flash this season, and she’ll be partnered by Australia national team regular Alanna Kennedy. Both are big, physical defenders who should be able to dominate in the air. However, neither player is particularly quick, with Spirit target striker Katie Stengel - not known for her speed - leaving Kennedy in the dust the last time these teams met. The more the Spirit force this pair to chase runners and play attackers in behind, the more likely they are to create danger.
Abby Erceg is the midfield anchor. The stalwart New Zealand defender has had to learn this defensive midfield role as the season has worn on. She plays this position extremely conservatively, but given how Western New York sends so many players forward, that’s not the worst plan. If the Spirit can overload Erceg - who has the mobility of a career center back - Samantha Mewis will have to drop back alongside her, which in turn will make WNY easier to defend.
In the diamond, Mewis played right of center, but since Sanderson’s injury she has shifted into a central role. However, she’s less of a playmaker and more of a goalscoring presence who can also win the ball. In 14 regular season games (she was an alternate with the USWNT), Mewis managed 5 goals, and then scored the opener in Western New York’s playoff game last Sunday. Mewis’s long range shooting and size are both major concerns for Washington.
Makenzy Doniak replaced Sanderson in the lineup, but she’s much more of a winger or striker. Doniak scored goals in multiple preseason games against the Spirit when she was at the University of Virginia, and had the second goal in the Flash’s crazy 4-3 semifinal victory over Portland. Western New York will probably try to find Doniak on a regular basis, and while her game lacks a bit of subtlety, she can be relentless. Caprice Dydasco is good enough to handle the challenge, but it will be a stern test.
McCall Zerboni came over in a trade mid-season from the Boston Breakers, slotting into the lineup more or less immediately. Zerboni is a destroyer, which fit the left side of the diamond perfectly. The formation change hasn’t really changed her role that much, though she does have to rove out wide in defensive situations more often. Despite only making 12 appearances for Western New York, Zerboni ended the season with the fourth-highest foul total on the team, and she will bring some bite to the midfield.
Undoubtedly, though, the focus with the Flash has to come down to their forward duo. Jessica McDonald has played for four teams in four NWSL seasons, and despite scoring 18 goals over the past two years in Portland and Houston, it’s only since she arrived in Rochester that a club appears to have fully invested in her as a central figure. McDonald responded with a stellar 10 goal, 7 assist season, and in all likelihood is not going to be playing for team #5 in 2017.
McDonald has a sprinter’s speed (she set local records as a short-distance track runner in high school) but is also 6’ tall, and that athleticism makes her extremely difficult to deal with. Just as alarming, her long throw-in is a weapon that is entirely unique to Western New York. The Thorns are by and large out of the playoffs due to the fact that the Flash scored three of their four goals in the chaos caused by McDonald’s ability to hurl the ball all the way to the penalty spot, and the Flash will set up for a long throw whenever they can.
And despite all that, McDonald isn’t even the headliner up front. Lynn Williams, the 2016 NWSL MVP, is also the league’s golden boot winner. The second-year pro stretches teams with her speed, has a leap that allows her to contend for any header, and a well-honed sense of where the ball is going to end up inside the box. The Flash don’t tend to score too many pretty goals in terms of build-up, but Williams is a particularly sharp finisher. If the Spirit can’t keep someone marking her at all times, they’re going to have a major problem on their hands.
Off the bench, Taylor Smith is a pretty strong bet to come into the game. The US under-23 player is listed as a forward, but the Flash have used her more often on the flanks (both as a midfielder and as a fullback). Smith is probably better on the right, and the Flash have often removed Doniak before the full 90 is up, so don’t be surprised if that’s their first move.
Kristen Hamilton has come in somewhere on the left side in three of the last four games, though she’s more of a true left midfielder than Zerboni. Hamilton could also replace Hinkle if need be, though that seems unlikely given how the latter’s set piece delivery is a weapon WNY leans on. Michaela Hahn was a starter in defensive midfield before Zerboni arrived, and if the Flash are leading they’ve sent her in for McDonald and moved to a 4411 more than once. If the Flash get desperate for a goal, look for them to remove Kennedy and play either a 352 or 343.