Abby Wambach, WNY Flash Playoff Preview

With the focus in the NWSL now on the postseason playoffs, where the Portland Thorns face FC Kansas City on Saturday (11am PT, FOX Sports 2, Webstream: free trial), here is a look at the teams in the other semifinal.

Even though they finished top of the table following the NWSL regular season, Western New York Flash had the same amount of points (38) as second-placed FC Kansas City and the third-placed Thorns.

Two points further back were Sky Blue FC, who the Flash host at Sahlen’s Stadium on Saturday evening (2pm PT, FOX Sports 2, Webstream: free trial) with the winners advancing through to the playoff final and within one step of becoming the inaugural NWSL champions.

Cindy Parlow Cone’s team may not be worrying about either of those contenders just yet, but here is a breakdown of the two sides contesting the other semifinal and how they reached this stage.

Regular Season Record

Games Played 22

Wins 10

Loses 4

Ties 8

Goals For 36

Goals Against 20

Points 38

Path to the Playoffs
It took New York three games to register their first win as they overcame Sky Blue FC on May 1, but that then sparked a nine-game unbeaten run and allowed Aaran Lines’ team to show a glimpse of their title-winning potential. It was far from smooth sailing from there though as they slipped up away to Seattle Reign on July 11 and it required a big reaction to bounce back from that. So the fact that they remained unbeaten for the remainder of the regular season after that proved they were worthy of finishing top of the table.

Notable Results

June 8 – Sky Blue FC 0-3 Western New York Flash
Sometimes a team needs to use a game to make a statement of their intent for the season and that is exactly what this was for New York. Goals from Abby Wambach, Samantha Kerr and Carli Lloyd secured the win against one of the best teams in the league – plus it was on the road. Sky Blue are no pushovers and they registered 15 shots on goal in this game, but still New York didn’t wilt under pressure.

July 14 – Portland Thorns 1-1 Western New York Flash
All eyes were on New York following the 3-2 loss to Seattle Reign to see how they would respond and by escaping from JELD-WEN Field with a point they proved that they still possessed a fighting spirit. It was hardly surprising that Wambach led by example with an important goal, but hanging on to tie a game against the Thorns showed that Lines’ team had what it takes to make the postseason playoffs.

Top Three Performers

Abby Wambach (19 games – 11 goals – 8 assists)
The reigning FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year certainly lived up to her top billing with a season that marked her out as one of the most consistent performers in the league. As a forward, Wambach has it all – strength, awareness, skill, an eye for goal and the ability to link play with her teammates. Constantly making a difference and pushing the opposition onto the back foot, she has been outstanding all year.

Carli Lloyd (15 games – 8 goals)
A midfielder with superb close control and excellent technique, Lloyd is the one who really drives New York forward. Always on the move, she slides across the pitch with such ease and few players can track her runs because the United States international has usually peeled away before they can get a chance to prepare. If she gets the space to roam, Lloyd is someone who can turn the game in her team’s favor.

Adrianna Franch (22 games – 7 shutouts)
The stats say it all about this athletic goalkeeper with seven clean sheets, one penalty kick save and 98 saves made overall. The Thorns are all too familiar with her knack of repelling shots that look to be certain goals and then getting back up to clear the danger completely. Franch is quick off her line, able to cover the full width of her goal, and communicate with her backline in key moments.

What makes them a contender?
The biggest asset that New York has in its favor is its ability to grind out wins. Five times in the regular season they won by just a single goal, which showed that they deliver what it takes to come out on top when it is a tight contest. It doesn’t matter to this team if they win ugly or by playing entertaining soccer, they simply do what is needed to overcome their opponent and that makes them incredibly dangerous.

Regular Season Record

Games Played 22

Wins 10

Loses 6

Ties 6

Goals For 31

Goals Against 26

Points 36

Path to the Playoffs
It was clear from the opening weekend that Jim Gabarra had shaped a team that would be competing for a playoff spot at the end of the season. All over the pitch they had strength and proved to be a tough unit to break down, although their best trait was their ability to bounce back. They had a number of unbeaten runs break down with surprising defeats, but every time Sky Blue wasted little time in showing that they were ready for scrap for points. Despite not having as many potent weapons up front as some other teams, they found a way to play a brand of soccer that got them results.

Notable Results

April 14 – Sky Blue FC 1-0 Western New York Flash
There really wasn’t much between these teams in their season opener and it is ironic that they will face off again in the playoffs. But it was Sky Blue who edged it in the first meeting as the ball deflected off McCall Zerboni and ended up in her own net. This, though, was a game that showed the character of Sky Blue as Brittany Cameron saved a penalty kick and the defense stood firm to get off to a winning start.

June 1 – Sky Blue FC 5-1 Boston Breakers
No matter what league it is, the best teams always possess a ruthless streak that allows them to keep on punishing opponents and doing everything they need to do to pick up maximum points. Sky Blue showed their teeth in this game and then ripped Boston apart with both Lisa De Vanna and Danesha Adams each netting a brace, while Taylor Lytle also contributed to the demolition act.

Top Three Performers

Sophie Schmidt (19 games – 7 goals – 1 assist)
There are few midfielders in the league who can impact a game quite like Schmidt can as she uses her experience, energy and power to devastating affect. Whether she is breaking down opposition attacks or linking play with her forward passes, the Canadian centurion is always in the thick of it. A return of seven goals (second highest on the team) just sums up how important she is to this team.

Christie Rampone (20 games)
This 38-year-old may not be someone who makes the headlines that often, but ask any of her teammates – or even opponents for that matter – who they would want beside them when the going gets tough and they are likely to select this Flordia native. A natural-born leader, she is a defender who gets the best out of those around her and is able to anticipate the movement of opposing players.

Lisa De Vanna (16 games – 5 goals – 2 assists)
Many forwards rely on their pace or shooting to make a difference in games, but it is the movement of this Australian that sets her apart. Always twisting and turning her way past defenders, she creates openings for her teammates as well as avenues to roam into herself. And she can finish too, which makes the 28-year-old such a threat and a nightmare for defenders.

What makes them a contender?
Quick to spark counter attacks, organized in midfield and strong in defense, Sky Blue is the type of team that tries to lure you out of your comfort zone and then hit you. They can dictate the tempo of a game, although it is the trust that they have in their team shape and discipline that gets them through games. They will always be in the mix when it comes to earning a share of the spoils and few would back against their defense from being exposed in a tight game.