How the Spirit will (or will not) slow down Western New York's dynamic forwards

Wilf Thorne-ISI Photos

Western New York's attack is scoring at a historic rate. As Richard Farley writes, Washington's title hopes hinge on finding a solution.

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HOUSTON -- In the wake of his team’s semifinal defeat to Western New York, Portland head coach Mark Parsons talked about his opponent’s physicality, a common refrain among managers who’ve tried to slow down the Flash. A throwback to powerful, pre-possession era play, the direct approach haunted the Thorns’ defeated coach. Parsons dwelled on the Flash’s pressing, enabled by a striker tandem more athletic than any other duo the NWSL can offer.

“We had about 70-80 long balls from them into our penalty box last game. We wanted to drop that down (to) about 30-40 just (to) deal with less,” Parsons explained, alluding to his team’s last regular-season meeting with Western New York. Two weeks before the Flash beat the Thorns, 4-3 in the NWSL semifinal, Portland beat Western New York, 3-2 at Providence Park.

That Portland executed Parsons’ plan yet still fell at home speaks to the Flash’s playoff potential. Relentless to the point of oppression, Western New York is reaching levels that, should it play to its potential, may leave the team unstoppable.

“They are fast, they are hungry and they are super direct,” Parsons said. “Sometimes you get organized and you can deal with that, and there’s other times even good organization and great individual ability from our players happen, and they still get half a chance. That’s what happens when you put the ball in the box.”

That approach has helped Western New York’s forwards combine for 23 goals, making Jessica McDonald and Lynn Williams the league’s most productive tandem. On Sunday at BBVA Compass Stadium, it’s the Washington Spirit’s turn to find a way to stop them. The team’s title hopes depend on it.

Why the Spirit won't stop the Flash forwards

There are no secrets when it comes to Western New York’s play. The team tends to complete only 60 percent of the passes of its opponents, a deficit that’s by design. According to head coach Paul Riley, the team is more comfortable playing fast and direct, a style that leads it to attempt around 300 passes to, by his estimate, opponents’ 450 or 500. If the modern game has moved toward possession, Western New York’s happy to go against the flow. Think of Leicester and Atletico Madrid.

With so little of the ball, the Flash relies on transition, direct play, and set pieces. Those set pieces even include long throws from McDonald, a weapon the Flash used to great success in Portland. By any means available, the Western New York Flash will get the ball in the box, where the bulldozing of McDonald, the running of Williams, and the poaching of Samantha Mewis present a problem unlike any other in the NWSL.

The results speak for themselves. Through 21 games (20 regular season; one postseason), Western New York has scored 44 goals, 12 more than the Spirit. Only one team in league history, the 2014 Seattle Reign, scored more goals in a season, but with 53 goals in 26 games, that Reign’s goal per game mark (2.03) ranks slightly below this year’s Flash (2.09).

Last week's four-goal performance in Portland was especially impressive, mostly because of its simplicity. Perhaps Western New York targetted one weak point more than others (Thorns' left back Meghan Klingenberg), but the simple, straight-forward, imposing way it went about its business was the same as ever. There are no tricks to what the Flash is doing; no intricate plan surviving until it can be figured out. Western New York is just out-playing teams on a very basic level.

The plan to beat them is obvious (prevent them from overpowering you). The execution is more difficult.

It is really easy to say that players are aware that they can’t give up cheap throw-ins and corner kicks, as Spirit coach Jim Gabarra and his players have stated all week. But in the split-second of having to make a tackle to deny a goal-scoring opportunity now in favor of regrouping and defending another set-piece opportunity in a few moments, those aren’t necessarily conscious decisions. That means that the Flash will have opportunities.

Why the Spirit will stop the Flash forwards

There are three basic areas you can look to on Sunday to gauge how the Spirit is dealing with the Western New York threat:

1. Denial of service – Gabarra will need strong play from the wide players in his 4-3-3 if the Spirit is going to deny the Flash strikers’ service, and that goes beyond being aggressive contesting potential crosses. Washington’s wide attackers, Crystal Dunn and Estefania Banini, as well as the team’s fullbacks, Ali Krieger and Caprice Dydasco will need to win one-on-one battles on the flanks, thereby (hopefully) preventing throw ins and corners. And Tori Huster will need to shut down playmaker Mewis in the middle of the park.

2. Winning the first ball – When denial doesn’t work, you still have to prevent, and as Spirit center back Shelina Zadorsky said earlier this week, that comes down to winning the first ball in the air and making the right reads on the Flash’s first pass in transition. While those are priorities against all teams, there’s a special urgency against Western New York – a team with the speed and approach to turn one misread or lost battle into a big chance. Even before those moments, staying balanced at the back and prepared to react to transition could prove particularly important.

3. Aggression in goal – Washington goalkeeper Kelsey Wys says she prefers to play high in her penalty area, but statistically, that approach doesn’t seem to be helping with shot prevention. In 12 starts this season, the former Flash goalkeeper is facing 5.08 shots on target per 90 minutes, a rate slightly higher than the league average. In contrast, Stephanie Labbe, who made eight starts this year, is only facing 3.00 shots on target per 90. If Wys gets Sunday’s start, she’ll need to be more aggressive in front of goal, hopefully preventing direct balls from becoming good chances for Williams and McDonald.

Of course, this is all easier said than done. Exactly which center backs Gabarra chooses to play remains the main tactical talking point of the match. He has rotated his starters in that position all season, and logically, he could choose to put Estelle Johnson alongside Zadorsky for the best mix of height and experience.

Ultimately, Zadorsky, Wys, and the rest of the Spirit defenders have to execute. They may also need something short of Western New York's A-game to show up at BBVA Compass Stadium.

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