The Washington Spirit will face the Western New York Flash this evening in the Spirit’s first-ever NWSL final. It’s the second time the Flash have gotten to the final, but both teams are looking to be crowned NWSL champions for the first time. The possession-oriented Spirit and the more direct Flash promise a contrast in styles will be on display at Houston’s BBVA Compass Stadium.
For the Spirit, the team needed extra time in order to beat the Chicago Red Stars after the team conceded an equalizer towards the end of the second half. Nigerian forward Francisca Ordega scored an 111th minute goal in front of a loud home crowd to give the Spirit a 2-1 win.
In comparison to the Flash’s semifinal though, the Spirit’s playoff game seems rather sedate. Western New York, the lowest seed in the playoffs, upset the Portland Thorns 4-3 in front of over 20,000 Thorns fans. The Thorns came out strong but Western New York scored two first half goals and Portland immediately followed the Flash’s second goal with a Christine Sinclair comeback and an Emily Sonnett equalizing header with twelve minutes remaining in regulation. In extra time, NWSL MVP Lynn Williams scored two goals in six minutes and despite Lindsey Horan scoring in the 115th, Portland couldn’t come back. Jessica McDonald’s long throw-ins were a key factor in three of the Flash’s goals and could come up again against the Spirit.
One thing we do know is that Flash head coach Paul Riley was ejected during the first half of the Flash’s semifinal, and will be suspended for today’s game. During the game (including halftime), Riley will not be allowed to communicate with his team.
While the Spirit didn’t lose to the Flash this year, both the win in April and draw in September proved to be challenging matches for the Spirit. In April, the Spirit won 3-0 at Western New York, but since the game both coaches have indicated the scoreline wasn’t representative of the game itself.
“We look back at our match at Western New York, we ended up walking out of there with a 3-0 win, which is a bit of a bandito mask, they certainly had a lot of the play, I think we had maybe five shots on goal,” Spirit head coach Jim Gabarra said in yesterday’s press conference. In the more recent meeting, the Spirit struggled to control the tempo, with the Flash able to deliver many potent crosses in a foul-filled track meet. Though the Spirit came out of both games with at least a point, the two games also make clear that Washington will need to control the game and play its calm, possession-oriented style in order to win the championship.
One question for the Spirit is the center back pair for tonight’s game. Gabarra consistently started Megan Oyster and Shelina Zadorsky early in the season, but after the Olympic break, the center back pair has kept changing. Oyster has only started once since then, oddly enough against Western New York (though current favored center back, Whitney Church, was injured at the time). Church struggles to keep up with the league’s faster forwards and since the Flash boast lethal speed up top, Gabarra may elect to start Church alongside the faster Oyster or go with another pairing. Before the semifinal, Gabarra went through three players to pair with Zadorsky before he decided to start Church.
The Spirit play well when the ball stays on the ground, the team as a whole moves the ball well, the team stays calm. In contrast, the Flash boast two athletic, strong forwards up top and together, McDonald and Williams are a powerful threat to the opposing backline. This season, Williams and McDonald have scored a combined 23 goals in 21 games.
McDonald is one of the Flash’s most experienced players: no one on the Flash’s roster is over 30 years old and only one player, New Zealand international Abby Erceg, has over 100 caps. Samantha Mewis, 21, was an alternate for the United States at the Olympics but despite being one of the league’s best midfielders, has yet to regularly start at the international level. The lack of experience, combined with coaching turnover and a dismal showing in 2015 led to low expectations for the Flash this season. Riley said in yesterday’s press conference that within the team there was no discussion of playoffs but after two wins to start the season, he started to think his team had a shot at the playoffs. Around that time, Mewis asked him, “Do you actually think we have a chance at the playoffs?” then stopped herself and said “I didn’t mean to say the word.”
Nonetheless, two teams that weren’t necessarily expected to get this far back in April - Washington was considered a playoff team, but not quite a true contender - are the only sides left standing.
Location: BBVA Compass Stadium (Houston, Texas)
Kick-off time: 5:00pm Eastern
Available TV: Fox Sports 1
Available Streaming: Fox Soccer 2Go (sign up for free trial with code U17WNT)
A gamethread will be posted 90 minutes before kickoff.