NWSL Championship Match Preview: Western NY Flash vs. Portland Thorns FC - Aug. 31, 2013

Tobin Heath, Thorns @ Flash, 8.31.13

2013 NWSL Championship

Date: Saturday, August 31, 2013 Kickoff: 5 p.m. (Pacific)
Location: Sahlen Stadium (Rochester, New York)
Forecast: 84 degrees, sunny
Referee: Kari Seitz
Assistant Referees: Veronica Perez, Kyle Atkins
Fourth Official: Margaret Domka
National TV: FOX Soccer and FOX Sports 2 / Free Trial Webstream:
Talent: Steve Cangialosi (play-by-play), Kyndra de St. Aubin (analyst), Heather Mitts (sideline)
Saturday’s National Women’s Soccer League championship match marks the third meeting between Portland Thorns FC and the Western New York Flash this year. Both previous matches have ended in draws, as Thorns FC earned 
a comeback, 1-1 draw against the Flash on July 14 and a scoreless draw in the penultimate game of the regular season on Aug. 10 at Sahlen’s Stadium. The two clubs have combined for two goals in 180 minutes of action. Thorns FC enters the match on a modest, three-game unbeaten run since Aug. 10. Including the postseason, Portland extended its league-best road record to 7-2-3 with a 3-2 win in the semifinals against FC Kansas City on Aug. 24. Western New York carries an eight-game unbeaten streak into Saturday’s final match.

Thorns FC Reach Title Game with 3-2 Win

Allie Long
recorded the game-winning goal for Thorns FC in the 103rd minute of extra time, helping guide Portland to a 3-2 win over FC Kansas City and a berth in the NWSL Championship match on Aug. 24. Despite conceding two goals in the opening 25 minutes, Thorns FC battled back on goals by midfielder
Tobin Heath
(33rd minute) and forward
Tiffany Weimer
(65th minute) before Long’s game-winning tally in extra time.

Last Match vs. Western New York
Karina LeBlanc
made a season-high 10 saves, including five in each half, as Thorns FC battled to a scoreless draw with the Western New York Flash before 7,606 fans at Sahlen’s Stadium in Rochester, N.Y., on Aug. 10. LeBlanc registered her seventh shutout of the season, coming up with
a late save on a long-distance free kick by Flash defender
Brittany Taylor
in second-half stoppage time. A Canadian international, LeBlanc also helped keep Western New York forward
Abby Wambach
in check with saves in the ninth and 59th minutes. Playing without leading scorer
Alex Morgan
, who sustained a mild MCL sprain in her left knee against Boston in the game prior, Thorns FC registered seven shots (3 on goal). All three shots on goal came in the second half, as midfielder Tobin Heath provided two of the team’s best scoring chances in the 54th and 72nd minutes.

Scouting the Flash
The Western New York Flash enter Saturday’s game on an eight-game unbeaten streak (5-0-3) since July 14, six of which were played at Sahlen’s Stadium
in Rochester. When playing at home, the Flash have lost just one game (April
27 against the Boston Breakers) and compiled a league-best 8-1-2 record at Sahlen’s Stadium

Head coach Aaran Lines, himself a former member of the Portland Timbers during the team’s 2005 USL First-Division season, has benefited from strong offensive attack this season. Western New York finished the regular season with a league-high 36 goals, including 11 from forward Abby Wambach and eight from midfielder
Carli Lloyd
. Lloyd netted a brace in the team’s 2-0 semifinal win over Sky Blue FC. Goalkeeper
Adrianna Franch
, an NWSL Best XI Second Team honoree, compiled a league-best 0.91 goals-against average in 22 regular-season games, while leading the league with 98 saves.

Championship Experience

Aside from playing in games on the world’s biggest stage in the FIFA Women’s World Cup and the Olympic Games, several Thorns FC players have played a role in championship games at the professional level, as well. Most recently, forwards
Christine Sinclair
and Alex Morgan and midfielder
Becky Edwards
helped lead the Western New York Flash to the 2011 Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) title in front of 10,461 fans at Sahlen’s Stadium. In 2010, Sinclair, Edwards and defender
Rachel Buehler
won the WPS title with FC Gold Pride. In 2009, goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc starred for the Los Angeles Sol in a 1-0 loss against Sky Blue FC in the championship game. Head coach Cindy Parlow Cone helped the Atlanta Beat reach the 2001 and 2003 WUSA Founders Cup, losing both times in the final.

Weimer on a Roll

Thorns FC forward Tiffany Weimer has taken on the role of super-sub lately, playing a hand in several crucial goals for Portland down the stretch. Weimer, who entered last Saturday’s semifinal match against FC Kansas City in the 56th minute, tallied the game-tying goal in the 65th minute. Weimer then assisted on Allie Long’s game-winning goal in the 103rd minute. In the final game of the regular season, Weimer assisted on forward Christine Sinclair’s game-winning goal in the regular-season finale against Seattle. All told, Weimer has played a part in three of Portland’s last four goals.

Five Straight on the Road

Entering Saturday’s championship match at Western New York, Thorns FC have played four straight matches on the road. Saturday’s game will be the team’s fifth consecutive road game since Aug. 7. Portland is 2-1-1 overall during the road swing (7-2-3 this season including playoffs), outscoring opponents 6-5 in four games.

Reliable Defensive Corps

In 22 regular-season games, Portland’s back line of
Nikki Marshall
, Rachel Buehler,
Kat Williamson
Marian Dougherty
proved to be a reliable group. Marshall and Williamson started all 22 games, as Williamson (a rookie) ranked first among defenders with 1,944 minutes played. Marshall ranked third (among field players) on the team in minutes played (1,871). Buehler missed only two matches, both for international duty, while Dougherty missed three games.

Long’s Impact

Including the postseason, Thorns FC are an undefeated 4-0-0 when midfielder Allie Long records a goal. Long registered three goals and three assists during the regular season, despite shifting to a holding midfield role midway through the year. Long tallied in a 2-0 win at Chicago (May 12), a 4-3 win over FC Kansas City (June 6) and a 3-1 win over Sky Blue FC (July 31), before recording the game- winning goal last Saturday in a 3-2 semifinal win at FC Kansas City.

Regular Season In Review

Like many teams in the National Women’s Soccer League, Thorns FC went through ups and downs during the regular season, but one thing remained consistent - Portland was never far from the top spot in the league standings. After opening the year with a five-game unbeaten streak, Thorns FC went on to suffer just two losses in the first half of the season. Portland entered the midway point in the 22-game regular season with an 8-2-1 overall record.

Playing six of their last 11 games on the road, Thorns FC lost consecutive games for the first time June 30-July 6. Despite finishing the second half of the season with a 3-4-4 record, Thorns FC locked up the No. 3 seed in the playoffs - finishing tied on points (38) with No. 1 Western New York and No. 2 FC Kansas City and two points ahead of No. 4 Sky Blue FC in a tight race for playoff seeding. Clinching a postseason berth with two weeks left in the regluar season, Thorns FC finished on a high note, earning a shutout in a scoreless draw at Western New York and a 2-1 win over Seattle Reign FC.

Forward Christine Sinclair netted four goals over the final six games, while midfielder Tobin Heath added three assists in seven games after joining the team in mid-July. Forward Alex Morgan ended the year as the team’s points leader (21) with eight goals and five assists, while goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc collected seven shutouts and 92 saves in 21 games.

On the Road

Despite massive support at home, Thorns FC have compiled the best road record in the NWSL in 11 regular-season away matches this year. With a road record of 6-2-3 (.636), Portland has conceded a paltry eight goals on the road this season, ranking first in the NWSL in road defense with a 0.72 road goals-against average. Thorns FC earned yet another road win last Saturday, this time capturing a come-from-behind, 3-2 win over FC Kansas City after extra time at Verizon Wireless Field at Shawnee Mission District Stadium. After conceding two goals in the opening 25 minutes, Thorns FC battled back to tie the game in the 65th minute, sending the match to extra time.

Attendance In Context

In 11 regular-season home games, Portland has earned an average attendance number of 13,320 at JELD-WEN Field. The number is impressive when put in larger context. In women’s professional soccer history in the United States, it ranks as the second-highest average regular-season attendance behind the 2001 Washington Freedom (14,421). When placed alongside Major League Soccer attendance numbers, Thorns FC draw larger average crowds than Chivas USA (8,670) and just slightly less than three other MLS clubs: D.C. United (13,577), New England (13,635) and Chicago (14,068). Worldwide based on 2012-13 attendance, Thorns FC have earned higher average attendance than seven men’s teams in the Dutch Eredivisie (Netherlands), five teams in Ligue 1 (France), three teams in Serie A (Italy) and England’s npower Championship (the step below the Premier League) and two teams in La Liga (Spain).