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Morgan, Wambach face NWSL questions

An injury could keep Thorns forward Alex Morgan out of a crucial match.
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Beau Dure

Beau Dure has written for USA TODAY and ESPN. He's the author of "Long-Range Goals: The Success Story of Major League Soccer" and forthcoming books on the UFC, youth soccer and the NWSL. Follow him on Twitter.

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The NWSL semifinals will feature Abby Wambach and Carli Lloyd as you’ve never seen them before. Unless you’ve been watching the Western New York Flash this summer.

Wambach and Lloyd have been national teammates for eight years, through countless big games in the World Cup and the Olympics. But with the Flash, their roles aren’t quite the same as they are on the national team.

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“Prior to this year, I had been primarily a box-to-box midfielder, which means 80 percent of what I'm doing is stuff people don't see -- tackling, winning headballs, setting up goal-scoring opportunities,” Lloyd said. “Now I'm in a role where I can do what I do best, and that's attack. I've been able to link up with Abby up top. I've had great teammates around me that have given me the freedom to do some things in that final third. It's been fun because I have this freedom. This is what I do best and what I love to do.”

“It was our goal to get Abby and Carli working close with one another, knowing that they've played together for many years in the national team and have a good understanding on the field,” Flash coach Aaran Lines said.

Lines deploys the national team stars in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Wambach, of course, is the target forward, and she has responded with 11 goals. Lloyd is an attacking midfielder or sorts, but not in a traditional sense. Wambach is actually the team leader in assists with eight. Lloyd has no assists, but she has eight goals.

And Wambach, who says Lloyd has always been a “game-changing player” on top of her game-winning goals in the past two Olympic finals, says she has learned more about her national teammate.

“It's been cool to play with Carli in that (club) environment,” Wambach said. “I get to see her play more, I get to learn more about how she plays. … I think it's going to transfer into national team success based on how much time we've spent together on our club team.”

First up, though, is a semifinal game (8 p.m. ET, FOX Sports 2) against Sky Blue FC, a wounded but dangerous opponent. The New Jersey-based club was contending for a four-way tie for first place until the final whistle of its season finale in Washington, which ended in a 1-1 draw.

“Even if you don't finish first in the tiebreaker, to be able to get a four-way tie for first with 38 points -- I wanted it for our team and our players who have just been fabulous this year through a lot of hardships,” Sky Blue coach Jim Gabarra said.

Instead, Western New York took the top seed on tiebreakers out of a three-way tie for first, using a late surge to get there. Home field helped -- the Flash played five of its last six at Sahlen’s Stadium, winning four and drawing one. Western New York also drew its last two road games for a seven-game unbeaten streak.

Sky Blue faded over the summer, winning only twice since June 16 -- both 1-0 decisions against the last-place Washington Spirit. Versatile U.S. national teamer Kelley O’Hara had problems with her right ankle and finally opted for reconstructive surgery that will keep her out for 4-6 months. Australian Caitlin Foord, named the best young player at the 2011 World Cup, is also out for the season.

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Gabarra said those are the only players ruled out for the weekend, leaving open the possibility that veteran midfielder Brittany Bock and pesky forward Lisa De Vanna could return.

The first semifinal (2 p.m. ET, FOX Sports 2) features the teams that tied Western New York for first, FC Kansas City and the Portland Thorns. Host and second seed Kansas City has already taken several individual awards -- Lauren Holiday took the Golden Boot as the league’s top scorer and is a favorite for MVP, Erika Tymrak was named Rookie of the Year, Nicole Barnhart won the Goalkeeper of the Year vote, and Becky Sauerbrunn earned Defender of the Year honors.

Coach Vlatko Andonovski also could pick up an individual award, an impressive achievement for a coach known mostly for indoor soccer heading into the season.

“I had to prove myself to the players, to our squad, especially the more experienced players that are on the different national teams,” Andonovski said. “But it seemed like they were on board with the ideas I had, especially with the style and formation and everything. After they bought in believing what I had in mind, they just did it themselves.”

But Kansas City is entering the playoffs on the heels of a stinging defeat. Needing only a draw to clinch the league’s regular-season title and home field through the playoffs, Kansas City gave up goals to Chicago rookie Jen Hoy in the 45th minute and in second-half stoppage time to lose 2-1 at home to the eliminated Red Stars. The loss was Kansas City’s second straight since winning a 3-2 thriller Aug. 4 in Portland.

That Aug. 4 game was also pivotal for the Thorns. Portland midfielder Danielle Foxhoven hinted at a chemistry problem, citing “a bit of separation on our team.”

Thorns forward Christine Sinclair denied such a problem this week. “I don't exactly what know what Dani was alluding to. I believe we're a very close team. I think every team throughout the league has gone through their ups and downs. No team has completely dominated from start to finish this year. We had some senior members of the team that tried to keep those losing streaks and those down times to a minimum, and we’ve rebounded pretty well.”

The biggest question facing the Thorns is the health of Alex Morgan. The star U.S. forward left Portland’s Aug. 7 game against Boston with a knee injury that was less serious than it first appeared. Coach Cindy Parlow Cone said Morgan will make the trip to Kansas City and should be considered day-to-day.

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