The Tactical Battle
Both clubs have questions and injury concerns, though Portland’s are more pronounced.
The Thorns have multiple injury problems, with the availability of Tobin Heath in particular a doubt. Heath, injured most recently in a clash with Desiree Scott, did not participate in final practice with the club and might be limited in her role on Saturday. Starting Heath could be a major risk for Cindy Cone, but at the very least, she figures to be an impact sub for the Thorns.
Alex Morgan, nursing an MCL injury, seems much more likely to start for the Thorns, and her pace and ability to test backlines on the break could be key for Portland’s chances. There’s no telling just how effective she’ll be though, as she hasn’t played since suffering the injury weeks ago.
WNY has the fitness of McCall Zerboni to sweat over. The Flash midfielder and captain made a successful return to the pitch as a late substitute last weekend in the semi-final against Sky Blue FC. The main question for the Flash isn’t whether Zerboni will play but if she can go a full ninety (or one hundred twenty). Her energy will be key for WNY, and she could be one of the match’s key figures.
WNY will likely go with a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1, probably largely dependent on the role Aaran Lines wants Zerboni to fill. The captain’s movement and ability to get forward might be key in opening up space for the attacking trident of Adriana/Lloyd/Kerr. If the club wants to go a little more offensive, they might go 4-3-3 with Zerboni trying to break forward and drag Long from her likely defensive assignment in staying tight to Carli Lloyd. A 4-2-3-1 with Zerboni alongside Angela Salem would be more rigid tactically and keep things tighter but would also put pressure on Lloyd, Adriana, and Kerr to create space to keep Abby Wambach from being isolated up top.
Portland have a lot more options with how to arrange the six in front of the back four. Personnel wise, it’s tough seeing the club going without Christine Sinclair, Meleana Shim, and Allie Long. The other three spots are up for grabs though, with Alex Morgan the most likely starter. Tobin Heath is an injury doubt, despite Cindy Cone’s best assurances, and the club has a decision to make on whether to utilize Tiffany Weimer, whose introduction turned the semi-final against FCKC on its head, or to continue with Danielle Foxhoven, who seems better suited for an impact sub role.
If Morgan does start, will Cone use both up top in a 4-4-2 alignment that had marginal results early on? Or will Cone try to use Morgan in a wider role (potentially on the right) to expose stand-in left-back Sarah Huffman, who was inserted there after Katherine Reynolds switched to the right following Alex Sahlen’s injury. A 4-2-3-1 with Sinclair up top and Morgan, Weimer, and Shim as the attacking midfield band could be a possibility if Heath doesn’t start, though the club would likely be forced into using Angie Kerr as the second deeper midfield alongside Allie Long, with Kerr having not been too terribly effective for much of the season.
Regardless of whether Cone goes 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1, or even 4-3-3, the question of width will naturally come up. Portland has been criticized for their lack of it at times, and given their struggles in the middle third of the pitch for much of the season, Cone may be tempted to flood the midfield to stop a potent WNY unit from playing through the center of the park. A narrow diamond could theoretically see Portland with a 4v3 advantage in the center of the field, but that would make the club dependent on the full-backs for width. Considering the counterattacking potential of Samantha Kerr on one flank for WNY, it’d be a risky proposition indeed.
Zones of Contention
Morgan/Sinclair (POR) vs Johnson/Taylor (WNY)
Much depends on how Cone intends to use her two big name strikers. In a 4-4-2 setup, Morgan and Sinclair, if they’re used as a tandem up top would go head-to-head with the underrated center-back pairing of Estelle Johnson and Brittany Taylor. Johnson, with her pace, would likely matchup against Morgan, with Taylor handling Sinclair. Even if Morgan is used out wide, I’d expect Johnson to follow her closely to try and neutralize the USWNTer’s pace. The move that could be a real spanner in the works is if Cone decides to play Sinclair in a more withdrawn position. Angela Salem’s a great defensive midfielder, but it’s anybody’s guess as to how she’ll hold up against the physicality of Sinclair in a one-on-one matchup. Morgan as a lone frontrunner against Johnson and Taylor probably isn’t going to be conducive to success though, so if Sinclair is deeper in the formation, either Tiffany Weimer or Danielle Foxhoven would likely partner Morgan up top. Foxhoven’s probably the better out and out striker, but Weimer makes more happen for those around her, so Cone faces a tough decision in any event.
Salem (WNY) vs Weimer/Sinclair/Heath/Shim (POR)
Angela Salem’s been one of the revelations of the season as WNY’s midfield stopper and faces perhaps her greatest test on Saturday night. More so than usual, as her direct opponent may be a bit of mystery until the teams take the field. Tiffany Weimer seems like the most natural option given her showing in the semi-final, but Cone may want to keep her on the bench to start to have a player of real impact in reserve just in case. Tobin Heath and Meleana Shim are possibilities, though I’d expect each to try to exploit the flanks, while Danielle Foxhoven is another longshot. The task of stopping Christine Sinclair would be an odious one though, as Salem would have to use all her wiles to avoid being outmuscled by the Canadian. Salem’s played beyond expectations this season, and if she can help cut off service to the forwards from the middle again this game, WNY could be on its way to a title.
Heath/Marshall (POR) vs Reynolds/Kerr (WNY)
Assuming Heath plays, she could easily be used on the left flank to give the Thorns some width in the middle of the park. With WNY figuring to dominate centrally in midfield, it’ll be crucial for the Flash to exploit any gaps on the flanks. Whichever side Heath’s on, almost assuredly the left, will be key, meaning the interplay between Heath and Nikki Marshall will be vital, though Heath’s health itself is also going to be an issue in all likelihood. Aaran Lines can play the matchup game with Samantha Kerr capable on either flank, but I like her sticking right this game to give the Thorns something to think about on the counter. Kerr’s energy will be a big benefit in keeping both Nikki Marshall honest while also trying to press Heath back. Katherine Reynolds is better defending than getting forward and figures to be more focused on defensive duties. At least as long as Heath is in the game.
Shim/Dougherty (POR) vs Adriana/Huffman (WNY)
It might be a bit more unpredictable on the other flank. Sarah Huffman’s come in as the club’s left-back when Katherine Reynolds was shifted to right-back and done surprisingly well considering she operated on the right flank during her later matches in WPS. She could be in for a test though against Meleana Shim on the wing, as the rookie out of Santa Clara has impressed this season and could actually be the surer option of the two likeliest wide midfielders for Portland considering Tobin Heath’s injury. If Portland goes with a narrow diamond in midfield, Huffman could have room to roam, but she also might join into a midfield battle as well. Adriana is very much a fourth option offensively for WNY. She’ll likely be occupying Marian Dougherty and trying to help create space for the club’s other attackers. Anything production-wise they can get out of her would have to be seen as icing on the cake.
Long (POR) vs Lloyd (WNY)
It’s probably the final’s key matchup. Long’s penchant for fouls and bookings makes her a big target for the Flash, who’ll probably be running right at her from the get go in hopes of getting the Thorns’ defensive midfielder booked. If Long does get stuck on a yellow early, it could be a long night for the visitors, as the Flash, already likely to be superior in the middle of the park, will probably try to ruthlessly run their attack right up the center of the field. Long’s got a fair amount of ability going forward, just ask FC Kansas City, but she’s probably going to be on defensive duty first and foremost. If Lloyd has room to roam, Portland is probably going to be in trouble. She has to play with discipline though, as the Rutgers alum has certainly been guilty of stupid fouls and bookings herself in the past.
McCall Zerboni and the balance she finds in midfield will be key for the Flash’s hopes of lifting the title. While WNY has coped fine without her, there’s no question Lines will be happy to have his midfield energizer and captain back in the starting lineup. I think WNY will try and break away from their 4-2-3-1 they used late and use Zerboni in a proactive role to try and open up space for the club’s front four attackers. Her darts forward will be particularly important in helping Lloyd shake free from Long and keeping Wambach from seeing constant 2v1s at the top of the box. It’s all about balance though, and if WNY’s protecting a lead, Zerboni and WNY could shift back to the 4-2-3-1 to try and help cut off central service to the forwards.
Wambach (WNY) vs Williamson/Buehler (POR)
One-on-one, Wambach wins a matchup with either of Portland’s center-backs in a walk. Both Kathryn Williamson and Rachel Buehler have had moments of class and moments of madness this year, but both will need to work in concert to shut down Wambach in the final. Just as dangerous as her scoring ability is her ability to flick balls on for the club’s midfield runners, making Wambach an all-around threat to cause the Thorns problems. Portland will be wary on set pieces as well. The Taylor to Wambach connection on free kicks has wreaked havoc on opponents at times this season and could be instrumental to the Flash’s offense again here.
Two netminders perhaps going in different directions as the season has gone along. AD Franch had some growing pains with her positioning early and doesn’t have the best footwork, but she’s repeatedly shown she’s an elite shot stopper with a good command of her area and a rocket for a leg. She’s also gotten better as the season’s gone along. Portland’s Karina LeBlanc showed she wasn’t past it with some confident displays early but has struggled a bit with her handling later in the season. Both stole the show in the clubs’ first meeting with a string of great saves and have the capacity to steal the headlines on Saturday.
If it comes down to penalties, LeBlanc has shown her ability at saving spot kicks this season. Franch is an elite penalty stopper though, as evidenced by some of her feats with OSU in college. She’d clearly be confident of triumphing if it comes down to penalties.
The Flash have a very well balanced bench to operate with. If the club is chasing a lead, Canadian Jodi-Ann Robinson and Mexico’s Veronica Perez are likely to be thrown on, though neither has exactly proven to be clinical in front of goal this season. Vicki DiMartino for Adriana has been a common substitution this season, and the rookie out of Boston College may be the Flash’s best hope for rescuing a game from the bench. The options are more promising if the Flash need to close a game out. Ingrid Wells is a pick to help retain possession and would probably come on for Adriana if the club is guarding a lead to help contain things in midfield. Amy Barczuk’s another safe substitution, with the defensive midfielder and occasional defender possessing much snap in the tackle.
Portland have quality but not in quantity coming off the bench. Much obviously depends on how long Morgan and Heath can go, with the latter likely the bigger worry for Cone on the touchline. Whichever of Tiffany Weimer or Danielle Foxhoven that doesn’t start figures to be the first sub on if the club isn’t leading, probably around the hour mark, likely for the other that did start, Shim, or Heath. From there, things get really shaky. Tina Ellertson’s had something of an odd, undefined role so far after joining Portland late and figures to only be used late if the club needs to protect a lead or needs a big body in the box. Angie Kerr and Courtney Wetzel are options in midfield if the club needs to shut things down with a lead, but who gives way further forward? In any event, Kerr hasn’t played well for much of the season, while Wetzel has ridden the ebbs and flows of being in and out of favor it seems. That Ellertson’s probably going to be the second best attacking option off the bench is worrisome, and there’s very little beyond the first four on the bench.
In short, Portland might have the best outright tool to pull a goal back in either Weimer or Foxhoven, but WNY has better options to close a game out and more depth on the bench overall.
What’s On The Line
Call it vindication versus domination. Cindy Cone has come in for sharp criticism from just about everyone in the WoSo sphere this season, to the point that her own fans even deployed a rather ornery tifo ahead of one regular season game. While her team selection, tactics, and roster moves have been questioned, she’s rose above all that and a late spate of injuries to lead the Thorns to the NWSL title match. Will victory here silence the critics? Maybe, maybe not. But a championship would make it a lot easier to ignore the grumbling.
For her opposite number on the Flash touchline, it’s just another opportunity to prove himself, and his club, as the dominant force in North American women’s soccer. Four championships in four different leagues would be unprecedented. Lines is probably thirsting for a clear cut title though. The W-League title came against clubs operating at a fraction of Flash’s resources, while WNY prevailed on penalties the last two seasons. If WNY can emerge victorious, especially without the need for extra time or spot kicks, one wonders what there would be left for Lines to prove at this level.
It’s hard to doubt the hunger on the players’ side as well. While the targets of criticism on Portland would no doubt love to emerge with glory, don’t underestimate the passion running through some of WNY’s warhorses. Wambach, and especially Lloyd, have struggled at club level domestically in the trophy hunt, and a win here would be a fine feather in the cap of their club careers after so much USWNT success. Plenty of players, including AD Franch, Brittany Taylor, Angela Salem, McCall Zerboni, Nikki Marshall, and Marian Dougherty among others will also undoubtedly be looking to catch the eye of Tom Sermanni in hopes of earning a recall to the USWNT.