Thorns on Verge of Bringing Silver to Cascadia
By Kara McDermott
This Saturday the newly minted National Women’s Soccer League will feature its first playoff final when Western New York Flash hosts Portland Thorns FC for a chance to break a stalemate between the two teams and crown a league victor.
The game will be played at Sahlen’s Stadium in Rochester, NY, at 5:00 p.m. (Cascadia Time) and can be watched on either FOX Soccer or streamed online at Fox Sports 2.
The playoffs began with an unusal set-up: the three top teams were tied in points: all with 38. Goal differential was the deciding factor in seeding and somewhere in Sweden, Pia Sundhage is smiling smugly about her constant defense of the importance of hitting the net as often as possible.
The New York Flash, with a differential of 16, rose to the top, followed by Kansas City FC with 12 and Portland Thorns FC with seven. Only Sky Blue FC was the odd man out; the team trailed the leaders by just two points and a five goal differential.
Seattle Reign FC did not make the playoffs.
The team’s inaugural season was lackluster and plagued by injuries. They finished second from the bottom in the standings with a record of 5-14-3, reigning above only the Washington Spirit who went 3-14-5.
The Portland Thorns on the other hand, looked good from the start. The allocation draft was kind to them: they picked up the stalwart Canadian legend Christine Sinclair and American revolutionary Alex Morgan to lead their front line.
Between the two, they netted eight goals apiece and the team racked up eight wins and a draw in the first half of the 22-game season.
After a few winless spells, the team entered playoffs as the third seed and had to face down powerhouse Kansas City FC in the semifinals, featuring the league’s MVP and lead scorer Lauren Holiday, who tallied 12 goals for the season. She also had the most assists with eight.
Kansas started strong and got on the board early in the 12th minute from Erika Tymrak and then closely followed the first goal with another in the 25th minute by Melissa Henderson.
The Thorns’ were able to steal away a shutout from Nicole Barnhart, the league’s best goalkeeper, when Tobin Heath redirected a cross from Angie Kerr for her well-timed first goal of the season.
The Thorns’ super sub of the day though was Tiffany Weimer, who entered the game in the 56th minute and scored nine minutes later for the equalizer. And then as the first overtime period was ebbing, she assisted Allie Long in the 103rd minute, which would be the winning goal of the game.
Western New York played Sky Blue FC in the semi-finals and was carried largely by midfielder Carli Lloyd, who scored the only two goals of the game in the 33rd minute and stoppage time of the second half (if that seems familiar, it’s because she also scored the USWNT’s two goals against Japan for the gold medal in the 2012 Olympics).
The Flash have had a good offensive season with their 36 goals leading the league, mostly from Lloyd (8) and forward Abby Wambach (11).
Wambach and defender Brittany Taylor were recently named to the league’s Best XI. Portland was shut out of this honor, but hosted three players on the Second XI: defender Rachel Buehler, Morgan and Sinclair. New York goalkeeper Adrianna Franch was also named to the Second XI.
In some ways, this is the ultimate showdown for the league. New York and Portland have met twice and tied twice. The only two goals in their series came within a space of two minutes on July 14: a 38th minute goal from Wambach and a 39th minute answer from Meleana Shim.
This isn’t hard to imagine. Both teams feature national legends known for goals and physicality in Sinclair and Wambach.
On the other side of the field, their goalies were among the most-tested in the season. Despite this, Franch had the best goals-against average in the league and Canada’s Karina LeBlanc was close behind in fourth. No other keeper made more saves than they did.
In the end, the league is likely to get the best outcome they could hope for: an even, hard-fought game between two good teams with household-name stars. For the NWSL, haunted by the ghosts of failed-leagues past, showing off good competitive soccer is an essential element of longevity.