The 2016 NWSL Championship is finally here. After many months of games and practices, it all comes down to just one game. The Washington Spirit will play the Western New York Flash on Sunday in Houston, Texas. In the two previous meetings this season, the Spirit beat the Flash 3-0 and tied 1-1.
After beating the Chicago Red Stars 2-1 in the semifinals, the Spirit will look to hoist its first trophy in franchise history. Here are three things to look for on Sunday afternoon when the Spirit hit the pitch for the final.
1) Which back five will head coach Jim Gabarra “pull out of his hat” this week?
Gabarra has put together many different lineups this season, rotating his backline from week to week. Last week, the back five was comprised of Kelsey Wys in goal, Ali Krieger at right back, Whitney Church and Shelina Zadorsky as the center backs and Caprice Dydasco at left back. With Wys getting the nod even when Stephanie Labbé returned from the Rio Olympics, it would be surprising if she wasn’t the one between the pipes tomorrow afternoon. Another spot where change be surprising would be the outside backs. Dydasco and Krieger have both shown that they can work up and down the field, contributing to the offense while still fulfilling their defensive responsibilities. The real question will be who Gabarra pulls out of his hat to start in the middle of the defense. It appears Megan Oyster has fallen out of Gabarra’s starting projections. With Church, Estelle Johnson, and Zadorsky getting most of the minutes over the past few weeks, the starters will most likely come from these three. Zadorsky and Johnson seem like the most logical combination because of the height and speed of the Flash offense.
While it is still unclear who will be in the starting lineup come Sunday, the defense remains confident and prepared for the potent Flash offense.
“We’ve seen them before, so we kind of have an idea of what they can bring and what they can do,” Church said. “I think the coaching staff has done a really good job at preparing us for that, and as long as we stick to our game plan and have each other’s backs, I think we’ll go really far in this game and we’ll have a really great shot.”
2) Who will step up and score for the Spirit this week?
Eleven different Spirit players have scored this season, including forward Estefania Banini, who leads the team with five goals. While the defense has rotated, the forward line has changed even more. The same combination of forwards has not played together more than three games in a row this year. This has proven helpful for the forwards, as no one player has too much pressure placed upon them.
“For me, it’s great because teams don’t really know who to mark, who’s dangerous or what our capabilities are and I think that it’s gotten us to the point that we are in now,” forward Crystal Dunn said.
When facing such a high powered offense as the Flash , the Spirit has to be able to score multiple goals to keep up with WNY. Washington is ready for the challenge though, as everyone feels they are able to score. Ten of the Spirit’s 32 goals this season have come from midfielders or defenders, illustrating the team’s scoring depth.
“Everyone, everyone, I mean everyone, including the defenders, everyone is capable of scoring,” Francisca Ordega said. “It’s not just the forwards, anyone is capable of scoring. We are not relying on anybody, come Sunday, anyone can score. Hopefully we can score more goals come Sunday. Anybody can score, it might be our goalkeeper, she might score.”
3) The battle of the midfield will determine the outcome of the game.
While much of the talk is on the Flash offense vs. the Spirit defense, one area of the game that is overlooked is the midfield battle. The trio of Tori Huster, Joanna Lohman and Christine Nairn is one of the top midfields in the league. They will be tested on Sunday as they go up against a gritty Flash midfield. If the Spirit can play through its midfield like it did against Red Stars in the semifinals, the Spirit improve its chances of winning the game.
“I think that we know our strengths and weaknesses and what we can do to be the best as a team,” Nairn said. “I think we are going to stick to our game plan in the midfield, as well as respect players like McCall Zerboni is the first one to come to mind, she’s a battler. But Jo Lohman is also a battler. So I think we match up well with their team. At the end of the day, it’s who is going to put their body on the line and who is going to perform to the best of their abilities.”
Kickoff for the NWSL Championship game will be 4 p.m. (5 p.m. on the east coast). The match will be broadcasted live on Fox Sports 1.