Can Portland thwart Western NY?
Carli Lloyd has scored the game-winning goals in the last two Olympic finals.
Christine Sinclair has scored 145 goals for Canada, including a hat trick against the USA in the 2012 Olympic semifinal.
Alex Morgan is the bright new U.S. women’s star who scored the winner in that epic Olympic semifinal against Canada.
And Abby Wambach is simply the all-time leading scorer in international soccer.
Those four will be back on the field together in the National Women's Soccer League final (live, FOX Sports 2 and FOX Soccer, Saturday, 8 p.m. ET Saturday), with Wambach and Lloyd leading the host Western New York Flash and Morgan and Sinclair’s Portland Thorns.
The funny part: For all the attacking talent on the field, the teams’ regular-season meetings were both draws, 1-1 and 0-0. But those scores are misleading. The first game was a shootout -- with rising U.S. keeper Adrianna Franch stopping nine shots for the Flash and Portland’s Karina LeBlanc turning aside five, including a late Wambach penalty kick.
“It was a great game, and that’s what you’re going to get in the final,” LeBlanc said.
The second game was a typical late-season encounter between two tired teams in the midst of congested schedules.
“The last time we played at Sahlen’s Stadium (the Flash’s home), it was like two boxers starting off in the eighth round,” Western New York coach Aaran Lines said.
And still, LeBlanc had to make 10 saves.
So the first storyline of this game is this: Neither team is shy about shooting. Here are some more storylines to watch:
Nobody likes us: You’d think two preseason favorites with soccer megastars who tied for first in the regular season wouldn’t complain about disrespect. And yet...
FC Kansas City, which the Thorns rallied to beat in the semifinal, swept all the league’s individual awards. That didn’t sit well with Western New York, with fans crowing on social media that the “snubs” would fuel the Flash.
Then when the Best XI was announced without a Portland player on the first team, Thorns owner Merritt Paulson spoke up on Twitter:
So no @ThornsFC players voted to best NWSL XI?! Glad that was announced the week before the final. #baon— Merritt Paulson (@MerrittPaulson) August 28, 2013
Foul play: Even in a league in which refs tend to swallow the whistle, the Flash and Thorns have managed to rack up the foul calls. The teams were second and third in the league in total fouls. In the two games between these teams, the Flash and Thorns combined for 47 fouls.
The Flash’s U.S. veterans lead the way. Lloyd led the league with 35 fouls despite missing a few games with injuries and a U.S. call-up. Wambach was fourth with 32.
Portland’s top fouler, Allie Long, was sixth in the league with 29. But special mention has to go to another U.S. star Tobin Heath, who got four yellow cards in a mere seven games to tie Lloyd, Morgan and two others for the league lead.
The referee assigned to the final is Kari Seitz, who has the experience of several Olympics and World Cups but has shown a laissez-faire approach at times this year and came under fire for her handling of Wambach’s head injury early in the season.
Injuries: Portland’s semifinal comeback from 0-2 down at Kansas City was especially remarkable given the absence of Morgan, who left the Thorns’ Aug. 7 game with a left knee injury that initially looked catastrophic but turned out to be a mild MCL sprain. She was available on the bench but not used in the semifinal, and coach Cindy Parlow Cone has been cagey about her status this week.
The Thorns also finished the semifinal game without Tobin Heath, who came into the game with a sore right foot and left after Kansas City’s Desiree Scott stepped on it. The team says she’ll be ready to go on Saturday.
Portland already is playing without midfield anchor Becky Edwards and offensive threat Nikki Washington.
Flash drive for four: Western New York is on the verge of completing a unique four-peat in four different leagues, with Lines guiding the team each year. But this one, in the most competitive league in which the Flash has played, would be the most impressive.
In 2010, the then-Buffalo Flash fielded a professional team in the mostly amateur W-League, dominating much of the season. In 2011, Western New York was one of two teams in WPS to spend freely on players -- Sinclair and Morgan played alongside expensive Brazilian star Marta -- and the other, magicJack, was eliminated before the final.
Last year, the Flash was one of three former WPS teams to stay in business and play in the WPSL Elite league, and that team’s players were in much demand when the NWSL launched this year.
Momentum: The Flash only lost four games this season, and they came in clusters: a 0-2-1 start, then a nine-game unbeaten streak (6-0-3), then another 0-2-1 run in July. They followed that with the 1-1 tie at Portland to wrap a winless four-game road trip, then played five of their last six (plus the semifinal) on the familiar Sahlen’s Stadium turf. The late run lifted the team to first place on tiebreakers over Kansas City and Portland.
The Thorns, like so many star-studded teams in soccer, have played with the burden of expectations that they have not always met. Two straight losses in early August wrecked their chances of claiming first place, and fans have fretted about team chemistry. But the inspired comeback in Kansas City gave an indication of what they can bring to the table.
Comparing the teams:
Stars: If Morgan plays, the Thorns have a 3-2 edge in players with a well-established reputation for changing a game. Sinclair is a poised and polished veteran. Morgan and Heath can get sidetracked by the feisty side of the game at times, but so can Wambach and Lloyd. Advantage: Portland.
Other attackers: The Flash got six goals and five assists from Australian teen Samantha Kerr. Spain’s Adriana Martin picked up three goals despite missing time for Euro 2013. For Portland, Meleana Shim added a stunning five goals after making the team in open tryouts, and Danielle Foxhoven scored four. The difference may be on the bench -- part-time starter Tiffany Weimer joined the team late in the year and was outstanding in the Thorns’ semifinal comeback, scoring the tying goal and setting up the winner. Advantage: Portland.
Midfield: The source of much frustration among Portland fans this year, particularly after Edwards was lost for the season. Meanwhile, Flash players and followers are gushing over quietly effective Angela Salem. Advantage: Western New York.
Defense: On paper, it’s all Portland -- U.S. national Rachel Buehler and rookie sensation Kat Williamson along with WPS vets Marian Dougherty (formerly Dalmy) and Nikki Marshall. The Flash counter with Best XI selection Brittany Taylor, who had three goals and four assists along with her solid play at the back, and some overachievers. Advantage: even.
Goalkeeper: A possible U.S. keeper of the future (Franch) vs. a Canadian vet (LeBlanc) who proved she’s not ready to step aside. Each keeper is capable of the spectacular. LeBlanc has the experience edge but has the occasional lapse. Franch finished second in Goalkeeper of the Year voting. Advantage: Western New York. Under pressure: The key player for the Thorns could be Allie Long, who had to take extra duty in midfield with Edwards’ injury. She scored the winner in the semifinal, though she picked up one yellow card and floated with a second. The other Portlander feeling the pressure is Cone, the rookie coach who had her critics this year but made the right moves against Kansas City and Coach of the Year Vlatko Andonovski in the semi. Portland dealt with expectations all season, but that burden has moved to the Flash, with its three championships in a row. Advantage: Portland.
Prediction: 2-2 draw, Portland wins on penalty kicks.