Spirit wins tactical battle, loses NWSL Championship

Brad Smith-ISI Photos

Washington debuted a back three in its biggest game of the year and executed it to perfection. It just didn't lead to victory. Richard Farley analyzes:

We are part of The Trust Project What is it?

HOUSTON – Lynn Williams’ 124th-minute goal. Sabrina D’Angelo’s saves. The young Western New York Flash celebrating the team’s first National Women’s Soccer League title on the field at BBVA Compass Stadium.

When NWSL fans think back to the 2016 Championship game, those memories will stand out. Less likely to be recalled: The Flash was largely outplayed over the final’s 120 minutes, and as the result of a tactical change from Washington head coach Jim Gabarra, the team’s lack of flexibility in attack was exposed.

“It was a perfect matchup to break it out today,” Gabarra explained, when asked about his decision to go to a three-woman defense. The entire season, Washington used two center backs, usually in a 4-3-3 formation. On Sunday, in the most important game of the year, Gabarra broke out a 3-5-2.

“I thought the three center backs did a great job …,” was his evaluation. “For large, large majorities of the game, [the Flash] were very ineffective in attack. And at the same time, we had numbers forward.”

The numbers, while not overwhelming, spoke for themselves. A Flash team that had averaged a league-record 2.09 goals per game coming into the final was held to one for most of the night, two through 120 minutes. Washington outshot the Flash, 15-12, put more shots on target (7-6) and only conceded four corners. Against a team that’s considered the league’s best on dead balls, it was a great result, one Western New York didn’t see coming.

“When we saw the team sheet, obviously we knew something was going on,” Flash head coach Paul Riley, who spent the game in one of BBVA’s radio booths (serving a suspension), said after the match. “(Megan) Oyster was on. We thought there’d be a little change of the formation, but I didn’t think that they’d play the three center backs, to be honest with you.”

In theory, it was an ideal response, as well as a traditional one. When going against two center forwards, add a central defender to keep your numerical advantage at the back. It’s a time-honored move but also one you rarely see from teams that exclusively use back-fours. Gabarra, however, eschewed familiarity to go with the textbook move.

Against a Flash forward pairing head coach Paul Riley calls his “twin towers,” the edge was necessary. League MVP Lynn Williams and Best XI selection Jess McDonald combined for 21 goals in the regular season, the best among any attacking tandem, and also provided two more in last week’s 4-3 semifinal win in Portland. Over the last two games, the Flash had scored eight times, so while the team may have “only” averaged just over two goals per game this year, recently history suggested it may be showing improvement.

Washington had to be proactive, and without the ability to match up one-for-one with that duo, Gabarra threw numbers at the problem. It was just about finding the right matchup.

“We’ve had four quality center backs all season,” Gabarra explained, describing a group that rotated among the two central defense positions throughout the campaign.

“The difficult part was picking which three to play. Whitney (Church),” the shortest of the four, leaving her less capable of defending against the Flash’s aerial game, “is probably our best tactical defender,” he explained. “That’s probably why she was in there. She’s very strong and physical. Then Shelina (Zadorsky),” a Canadian international who has evolved into Gabarra’s most likely selection, “brings a lot of organizational qualities.

In Oyster, a second-year player who briefly fell out of favor late in the season, the Spirit “needed for the aerial abilities.”

Along with a willingness to quickly drop deep, the line severely limited the Flash’s towers. Williams, the NWSL’s Golden Boot winner, was held without a meaningful chance before tactics broke and Western New York scored its late, desperation goal. As for McDonald, although she assisted on Williams’ equalizer, she had one of her least effective performances of the season.

“We looked at a lot of things, (and) it was a decision we made early on,” Gabarra said, noting this forward tandem (Crystal Dunn and Francisca Ordega), two central midfielders (Christine Nairn and Tori Huster) and “really good performances” from flank players (largely Ali Krieger) offset anything he was sacrificing elsewhere on the field.

In defense, Western New York was still exploited by Crystal Dunn, who scored early in the first half and extra time. In the middle, the Sam Mewis and Abby Erceg pair were not appreciably better or worse than usual, while out wide, neither rookie Makenzy Doniak nor veteran McCall Zerboni were able to make Gabarra pay for entrusting his wingbacks, Krieger and Caprice Dydasco (replaced early by Alyssa Kliener), to hold down the flanks by themselves.

After halftime, Western New York shifted to a 4-3-3, but in a formation it hadn’t played in earnest since its week one visit to FC Kansas City, Western New York was no more successful. Instead, the attack’s lack of versatility was exposed. While the Flash’s forwards can blow through two-woman defenses, jumping over them in attack and pressing them into the ground in defense, Williams and McDonald can’t be three people. As great as they are, they couldn’t undo this three-versus-two, tactical truism.

In hindsight, it was somewhat fluky Western New York won. Controlled most of the night, reliant on a Hail Mary and penalty kicks, the Flash needed a number of things to go right to overcome Gabarra’s adjustment. Even on the first goal, when Mewis was given so much time inside the Washington arc, that was an execution problem. If any of the four players who could have responded to Mewis actually closed down the ball, the Spirit may carry a clean sheet through 90 minutes. Even Riley conceded “they were the better team.”

But, as Krieger said after the game, “Football’s a funny game.” Nobody should go into a game assuming the best team always wins. It doesn’t, but that also doesn’t make winning any less valuable. The Flash deserves everything it won.

There was a lesson given out on Sunday, though, one that, along with the trophy, Western New York should carry back home with it. The Flash’s attack needs to find a second trick; else, Gabarra’s tried-and-true solution will be applied more often in the future. That won’t help ease the Spirit’s loss, but it should help inform how Western New York moves forward.

More NWSL Championship coverage

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