Matchups that will matter in the 2016 NWSL Championship

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Two teams with drasticaly different approaches square off Sunday in Houston. Richard Farley breaks down the key matchups in the 2016 NWSL final:

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Different formations. Different styles. Different philosophies behind their soccer. To some extent, these contrasts can be drawn between teams before any soccer game, but ahead of Sunday’s NWSL Championship in Houston between the Washington Spirit and the Western New York Flash, these differences are particularly stark.

On one side, the Washington Spirit plays a relatively modern style, relying on skilled players and fluid play to maximize its speed up top in its 4-3-3 formation. The Western New York Flash, on the other hand, is employing a throwback pace-and-power approach, counting on chance generated by the two robust forwards in its 4-4-2 setup.

Those drastically different approaches will yield a series of potentially defining matchups at BBVA Compass Stadium. Which ones decide the NWSL’s fourth title game will depend on how the players execute.

Three vs. two: Midfield battle

The Seattle Reign entered the season sporting the NWSL’s most renowned midfield, with the balance of the destroying Keelin Winters, shuttling Jessica Fishlock and attacking Kim Little forming a type of Platonic ideal of how a three-person midfield should work. Though that threesome is still a point of envy across the league, another trio emerged as the NWSL’s most effective over the course of the 2016 season. Given how they’ve played this year, it’s no surprise Joanna Lohman, Tori Huster and Christine Nairn have guided their team, the Washington Spirit, into its first league final.

The distribution of roles in Washington’s midfield may not be as delineated as Seattle’s, but the balance may be better. Nairn, the most skilled of the group, finished the season with three goals and three assists, yet she was bested in the goal column by Lohman, whose four scores matched her combined total from her last four professional seasons (69 appearances). Spirit coach Jim Gabarra said he expected Lohman to be a role player this year, but she has greatly exceeded expectations. The duo is supported by Huster, one of three Spirit players who were with the club during its inaugural season (Ali Krieger, Diana Matheson).

Even against other three-player midfields, Washington’s trio would present problems, something that, theoretically, puts the Flash in a terrible situation on Sunday. Playing a 4-4-2 formation, Paul Riley’s side will rely on flat two in the middle to offset the Spirit’s numerical advantage. That duo, Samantha Mewis (United States) and Abby Erceg (New Zealand), may both be full internationals, but they will still have the deck stacked against them against Washington.

Thankfully for the Flash, Mewis has proven herself adept at covering the extra space in the middle. Energetic and ranging, the 5-foot-11 UCLA product has become one of the best all-around midfielders in the league. In front of Erceg, a 26-year-old who leverages her defender’s instincts in the middle, Mewis is freed to take risks, with the pressure exerted by forward Lynn Williams and Jessica McDonald often simplifying Mewis’ decisions.

Together, those things help offset Washington’s numerical advantage. In theory, the Spirit’s three-versus-two edge in midfield should help it control the middle of the park while giving the Flash advantages elsewhere. But in a player like Mewis, Western New York has a force multiplier, one that fits perfectly between the Flash’s pressers and Ecreg’s destruction.

McDonald and Williams vs. Washington’s center backs

One of those places Western New York may have an edge is up front, with a duo Riley calls his twin towers. In Williams and McDonald, the Flash had the most prolific striker tandem in the NWSL. The source of their combined 21 goals: A combination of speed, athleticism and tenacity that creates matchup problems for every team in the league.

On their own, those traits would be problematic, but in a league where almost every team plays one up top, teams have grown increasingly unaccustomed to facing a two-front, let alone one with the quality of Williams and McDonald. In eight out of nine games, you’re facing teams that are pressing with one, maybe bringing their attacking midfielder up when they really want to hassle you. When you face the Flash, though, you have two of the most tenacious forwards in the league closing your center backs down.

And that’s just when you’re on the ball. When the Flash is in possession, Western New York quickly tries to get the ball to their forwards as often as possible. Per Portland head coach’s Mark Parsons’ estimate, that amounts to 70 to 80 direct balls per game. The burden was eventually too much for the Shield-winning Thorns, who saw its league-best defense concede four times (in 120 minutes) on Sunday in the semifinal at Providence Park.

This Sunday, it will be up to Shelina Zadorsky and Whitney Church, Jim Gabarra’s starting center backs against Chicago, to find a solution. The task could also fall to Megan Oyster or Estelle Johnson, two other players who’ve seen time as Gabarra’s mixed-and-matched central defenders. Zadorsky and Church are the safe bet to get the call, but don’t be surprised if Gabarra again plays the matchups.

Kelsey Wys vs. Washington’s long balls

The burden won’t be the center backs’ alone. Between crosses from high, drawing fouls deep, and long throws from McDonald, Western New York has made a broad and diverse commitment to threatening its opponents’ penalty box. While that usually means a long day for rival center backs, it also becomes a test for opposing keepers, who can make life easy on their defenders by claiming as many crosses as possible. For a team starting 5-foot-8 (Zadorsky) and 5-foot-5 (Church) players in the middle, aggressive goalkeeping could prove especially valuable.

At 5-foot-10, Spirit goalkeeper Kelsey Wys, a 2014 draftee of Western New York, has decent size and made a number of highlight reel saves throughout the season, but her ability to control her penalty box will be tested against Western New York. As Portland’s Michelle Betos found out on Sunday, staying on your line and hoping your reflexes prevail leaves you on the wrong side of penalty-box chaos. Twice on Sunday, the Flash scored through crowds in front of goal after long balls fell near the penalty spot.

Crystal Dunn vs. Jaelene Hinkle

Whereas Western New York relies heavily on two players for its scoring, no Washington player has scored more than five goals this season. Coming into the year, though, the plan was quite different.

Crystal Dunn, the league’s 2015 Most Valuable Player, was expected to pick up where she left off after a 15-goal season. Unfortunately, Dunn, who missed six games this season (mostly due to U.S. national team duty), fell to two goals, an output reminiscent of her scoreless rookie season (2014).

Despite that downturn, Dunn remains an imposing matchup. Her elite speed, activity rate and versatility -- ability to attack any position along the opponent’s line -- creates nightmares for opposing defenders, Dunn may be the most difficult one-on-one matchup in the NWSL, if not all of women’s soccer.

The player most likely to line up opposite Dunn is Jaelene Hinkle, a 23-year-old left back who, in her second year with Western New York, has also been an occasional U.S. national team call-up. Though quick and skilled enough to play a modern fullback’s role, Hinkle is still as inconsistent as many players her age, particularly at the defensive end. While she’s capable of containing Dunn, she (like almost any fullback) may have trouble with one of the most difficult matchups in soccer.

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Richard Farley is the West Coast Editor of FourFourTwo USA. Follow him on Twitter @richardfarley.