WNY Flash stun Portland Thorns 4-3 in extra time

The Portland Thorns and the Western New York Flash both squeaked into their playoff spots at the very end of the season – the Thorns stole a match on the Washington Spirit and managed to skip over them to first place while the Flash beat out the Seattle Reign by one game to take fourth. That’s where the similarities mostly end; the Flash were the underdogs this season, but they ended up being more than scrappy all season long and dominated through their fast, direct play. The Thorns had all the talent any club could ask for and new head coach Mark Parsons shaped them into a fluid fighting machine with one of the most watchable attacks in the league. The Flash weren’t expected to get too far; the Thorns still had all the expectations of being considered a flagship NWSL team despite lackluster recent results.

They met up on a grey, humid day at Providence Park in front of 20,086 fans. At first the Thorns commanded a large portion of the attack with WNY having to look for the odd moment to break loose, with an early bevy of corner kicks that came to nothing, and then early balls for Sinclair that ended up collected by goalkeeper Sabrina D’Angelo or deflected out under tight marking. Lindsey Horan was also making early stabs at getting in on goal and working with Sinclair before she ended up dropping into a line underneath Sinclair as the lone striker.

The Thorns had more corner kicks that ultimately came to nothing until in the 16’ the Flash had one of their forays forward and the ball fell to Samantha Mewis at the top of the 18. She hit it on the half volley and sent the ball whistling into the net to make it 1-0.

The Thorns tried to continue the pressure, still maintaining the majority of control in the game, but the Flash were clearly energized by the goal and began forcing more turnovers in the midfield while Mewis and McCall Zerboni started to have more space to work with. Meghan Klingenberg was not nearly as engaged as she needed to be, but was limited in how forward she could get as she was continually burnt by Makenzy Doniak. Meanwhile, the Flash’s defense started to settle in and by the 30’ the game had evened out, negating Portland’s early good start.

[More from Excelle: French star Amandine Henry makes an impact on the NWSL]

Then in the 38’ the Flash made it 2-0 as Abby Erceg went down in the Thorns box and clipped Lindsay Horan’s legs from the ground. The ref ignored calls for a foul; meanwhile the Flash sent the ball far post where Doniak finished on a header.

The Thorns responded immediately, sending the ball to Sinclair, who shielded it with her body, found the turn, and placed it precisely in the net to make it 2-1 in the 39’. It was a real captain’s goal and Sinclair, normally reserved and quiet off the field, exulted her team and the fans to start bringing it.

As if the game hadn’t escalated enough, Paul Riley was promptly ejected from the field in the 40’, reportedly for running onto the pitch in reaction to Sinclair’s goal.

Teams went into halftime at 2-1 with the sense that the ref needed to get a grip on the proceedings after a number of non-calls, the Erceg trip up in particular.

The second half was almost an exact flip of the first, with WNY gaining the upper hand for long stretches and the Thorns attempting to find a way out of their own half. Christine Sinclair had a beautiful cross in the  57’ that had D’Angelo coming off her line to deal with it, but she wasn’t able to collect it, leaving the net empty. Portland couldn’t capitalize though and WNY continued to have too much space in the middle, with McCall Zerboni taking acres of space for herself in the 69’ and forcing Michelle Betos to tip the ball over the bar.

WNY made their first sub in the 68’ with Taylor Smith replacing Makenzy Doniak. The Thorns followed with a sub in the 70’, putting in Dagny Brynjarsdottier for Nadia Nadim. Klingenberg wasn’t quite able to keep with Smith either, although she didn’t create as much trouble as Doniak throughout the second half.

Then in the 76’ Abby Dahlkemper fouled Lindsey Horan hard, earning a yellow card and a free kick for Portland. It ended up being Portland’s route back into the game as a long ball into the box resulted in a mad scramble that Emily Sonnett was able to finish inside the post.

The Thorns searched madly for a winning goal in regulation, but corner kicks were gathered ably in midair by D’Angelo while crosses and shots went wide. After 90 minutes yet another NWSL semifinal was forced to extra time.

The Flash made a sub early in extra time, pulling McCall Zerboni in the 95’ for Kristen Hamilton. WNY was clearly still feeling a surge from gaining the upper hand and forcing the Thorns to chase the game; they scored in the 98’ to make it 3-2 when a Lynn Williams slow roller sneaked past Betos’ outstretched glove.

The Thorns pushed back and in the 100’ Lindsey Horan put the ball off the woodwork. Then Tobin Heath nearly had the chance to tee up a nice hard shot in the 103’ but took too long and got interrupted by a defender running onto her from behind.

WNY made a definitive statement with a fourth goal in the 104’, scoring off the counter with a feed to Lynn Williams from Mewis, who slotted the ball beautifully through the back line. Williams’ speed caused the same trouble in the 104’ as it did the 1’, a testament to her engine and focus.

[More from Excelle: Sam Mewis emerges as a leader on young Flash squad]

The Thorns finally made another attacking sub in the 14’ with Hayley Raso on for Katherine Reynolds, pushing almost everyone high, leaving Sonnett and Menges in the back with Long and Henry in front of them. It paid off with a goal in stoppage of the first half of ET as Horan managed to finish off a ball into the box.

The second half of extra time continued with the Thorns’ scrambling to put the ball in dangerous positions, increasingly resorting to balls over hoping to find Sinclair or Horan or Heath or Brynjarsdottir or Raso, but nothing fell right. Tobin Heath’s service on set plays was not enough either, and every ball put wrong gave WNY a chance to take the ball deep into Thorns territory.

A flurry of yellow cards came late in the game, with one to Elizabeth Eddy in the 109’ for a challenge on Heath, then one to Heath in the 114’ after getting tangled with Taylor Smith, and then another in stoppage to D’Angelo for time wasting. They were too little too late for Portland, who very nearly managed a last-gasp goal in stoppage with a looping header looking like it was headed for an empty net with D’Angelo off her line to collect a ball in her box, but the ball was cleared away at the last moment.

That was the last good Thorns chance as their next bevy of crosses went begging and the game ended at 4-3, with the regular season winner eliminated and the Flash advancing to the championship to face the Washington Spirit.

WNY Flash vs Washington Spirit will kick off at 5 PM ET at BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston on Sunday, October 9.

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