Saturday match for NWSL trophy just one more challenge

HEATHThe Portland Thorns FC were always the chosen side.

From the moment the inaugural National Women’s Soccer League season began, anything less than a championship has been looked at as a failure by many fans and players.

In a semifinal match at FC Kansas City last week, the Thorns came back from two goals down to win 3-2 in overtime.

Now, the Thorns play the Western New York Flash in Rochester, N.Y., at 5 p.m. PT Saturday for the NWSL title.

Here are five questions the Thorns must answer if they are to meet the destiny the club has always said awaited it:

1. Striker Alex Morgan has not played since suffering a medial collateral ligament sprain against the Boston Breakers on Aug. 7. The Thorns’ co-leading goal-scorer (eight) is expected to play against the Flash. But how effective could she be?

Portland coach Cindy Parlow Cone: “She’ll be in training all week. If there’s no swelling in the knee, we’ll play her. That will help us in terms of being able to get a victory.”

2. Midfielder Tobin Heath suffered a foot injury in the win against Kansas City and had to leave the match. Will she be healthy Saturday? Cone: “Tobin is all right. She’s going to be fine.”

3. Flash striker Abby Wambach has scored 11 goals this season, one off the league high set by Kansas City midfielder Lauren Holiday, who edged her for league MVP honors. Western New York midfielder Carli Lloyd has 10 goals, including two in a 2-0 semifinal victory last week over Sky Blue FC. How can the Thorns stop them?

Portland goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc: “A lot of people know how lethal Abby is with her head. But she’s also got a great strike (with her feet). We have to be aware of her at all times. And right behind her you have Carli, who has a great strike. They’re smart players. We can’t let up even once. That’s when they’ll probably capitalize.”

4. The Thorns have a plethora of players with experience in high-pressure Olympic and World Cup matches: striker Christine Sinclair and goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc with Canada, and Morgan, Heath and defender Rachel Buehler with the U.S. How much will that experience help?

LeBlanc: “It gives you confidence. You know that in big games you can step up because you’ve been there. From what happened last weekend, we’re feeling very positive and believe in ourselves a lot. At the same time, the Flash are a great team, so it’s not just going to be about us.”

The title game could come down to the goalies. LeBlanc, 23, has seven shutouts and 92 saves in 21 games, with 1.095 goals allowed per outing. WNY’s Adrianna Franch, 22, a U.S. U-23 player, had seven clean sheets and 98 saves in 22 games, with a 0.91 goals allowed average.

5. Portland has the best road record in the NWSL (7-2-3), but the Flash have only one home loss. Something has to give: What will that be?

Cone: “We’re excited to go there. They have a great facility. They have great fans. So it will be challenging for us to go to Rochester and get a win. But we’re going to keep doing what we’ve been doing. We’ve been doing a lot of things well.”

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