5 things to watch in WPSL Elite Final
blog by Ben Tsujimoto • July 27, 2012 @ 11:53am
The Western New York Flash has the opportunity to win its third consecutive title in its third league in three years. The match, at 1 p.m. Saturday at Sahlen’s Stadium, could vault the Flash from repeat champion to dynasty. Let that soak in for a second.
Despite the confusing world of pro women’s soccer—where nothing seems certain or predictable—Aaran Lines’ teams have won consistently. The Flash stung the Philadelphia Independence in penalties in last year’s WPS Final, as world superstars like Marta, Christine Sinclair and Caroline Seger celebrated the title in front of over 10,000 fans at Sahlen’s Stadium.
This year’s young Flash team, a professional squad under a drastically-reduced budget, has experienced its share of struggles in the hastily-formed WPSL Elite. Only three Flash players returned from last year’s outfit, and when defender Kim Brandao was lost for the year with a fractured ankle, the avalanche of newcomers continued. Unofficially, Western New York fell twice to another former WPS team, the Boston Breakers, but the first loss was switched to a win after the league uncovered an ineligible player had suited up for Boston.
Attendance has drooped significantly—the Flash has eclipsed 2,000 fans only twice on the season, and the squad has pressed to drum-up support through camps, community activities and producing a winning product.
Western New York stayed resilient, rebounding from a loss to Boston on the regular season’s final day by snatching victory from the jaws of defeat against New York in the semifinals. Saturday lends another opportunity to support a sport fighting for its survival, a team that’s done everything in its power to persevere and stay relevant despite repeated obstacles.
Here are five story-lines to follow in Saturday’s match:
1) Chicago surging: It was shocking how easily the Red Stars dispatched the Boston Breakers on Wednesday in the other semifinal. Sure, Lisa Cole’s team was without superb defender Cat Whitehill, who was stranded in New York City after calling the U.S. women’s Olympic match against France for NBC, and quickly lost fleet-footed Courtney Jones to a head injury. Still, Rory Dames’ club dictated play and capitalized on chances, thoroughly smacking WPSL Elite’s No. 1 seed by a score of 3-1.
Western New York stomped Chicago in the first meeting between the two teams, 3-0, but had to weather a series of late chances to nip Chicago 2-1 on the road. Given Chicago’s recent improvements, expect this match to be more like the second match than the first.
2) Finding Adriana: The captain of Spain’s national team had to fight to even touch the ball against Boston and New York this year, but she’s found considerable success against Chicago, scoring once in each match. If Chicago can force Adriana to check back deep into midfield and receive the ball, the Red Stars will mute her effectiveness by keeping her from possessing the ball inside the 18-yard box. Beware if Adriana finds space, as Chicago would be forced to drop Jen Buczkowski farther back than usual, disrupting Chicago’s shape.
3) Production from Ochs, Davis: Aside from Katy Frierson’s two-minute outburst late against New York, there’s little question that Stephanie Ochs has been the Flash’s most dangerous attacker over the last two matches. Her long stride and willingness to dribble at defenders often wreaks havoc, and she was unlucky not to have dented the score-sheet in either match. To a slightly lesser degree, Omolyn Davis has troubled defenders on the opposite flank, but her final touch has let her down on several occasions. Davis’ pace rattled Chicago defender Michelle Wenino so much in the first meeting, however, that Dames switched his defender from left back to right to avoid the match-up. It’ll be interesting to see how prepared Chicago is to handle the Flash’s flank attacks.
4) Defending the flip-throw: Chicago has one major advantage in Saturday’s match: well-designed set pieces. The flip-throw antics of Michele Weissenhofer are supremely hard to defend—any throw from the touchline is essentially a corner kick for the Red Stars, as Weissenhofer can hurl the ball to the six-yard box with amazing regularity. Powerful striker Lauren Fowlkes may be the most talented opponent in the air that Western New York has faced, and she nodded home a corner kick in the first half against Boston Wednesday. How will Nikki Marshall and Katherine Reynolds deal with these tests?
5) Heart vs. experience: Western New York feeds off the emotions of captain McCall Zerboni, perhaps the most positive and energetic player on the field. Her drive and competitive spirit played an underlying role in the Flash’s comeback Wednesday, as she became progressively more vocal even with the chips stacked against Lines’ team. While her leadership is a strength, Chicago’s Lori Chalupny (28) and Buczkowski (27) boast big-game experience that the Flash simply doesn’t have. And, although the organization has plenty of playoff conquests, this current crop of WNY players is rather untested.
(Header photo from WNY Flash Facebook page)