Every good story needs conflict.
Women’s soccer got its rivalry in the 2012 Olympics when a hotly contested semifinal between the United States and Canada ended in extra time and with a little bit of bad blood.
The two stars of the rivalry – Abby Wambach and Canadian team captain Christine Sinclair – get yet another chance and another venue for a faceoff. This time, it will come with their respective club teams as the Western New York Flash host the Portland Thorns FC in Rochester’s Sahlen’s Stadium at 8 tonight.
The matchup is the championship game in the inaugural year of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL).
And if rivalries increase interest and feed the sports entertainment beast, Wambach is ready to enjoy the story line.
“I think Sinc and I would be friends if we hung out more,” Wambach said. “I think she’s a great person. I think she’d be a lot of fun to be around. … But everybody has to have a good villain. I’m not shy about that. If you want to talk smack in the media, go ahead. I’m not really that kind of person. But I think it’s awesome. I think it’s amazing that women’s sports is getting there.”
Stroll down memory lane to the Olympic semifinals last year between the U.S. and Canada. Sinclair scored all three goals for Canada, leading the Canadians to a late lead. The Americans tied the game when Wambach converted a penalty kick. Alex Morgan scored in the 122nd minute to give the U.S. a 4-3 win.
Immediately after the game, Sinclair said, “We feel like we didn’t lose, we feel like it was taken from us. It’s a shame in a game like that, that was so important, the ref decided the result before it started.”
Sinclair was incensed about a call against the Canadian goaltender for holding the ball too long, which gave the U.S. a free kick that resulted the penalty. She was suspended four games by FIFA for “displaying unsporting behavior toward match officials.”
And while there is no ill-will between Wambach and Sinclair (at least from Wambach’s perspective), the intensity surrounding the matchups only feeds the competitiveness. For example, the U.S. received a cheeky reception for a game in Toronto in June.
Although Wambach said she was motivated by the boos from Canadian fans earlier this summer, she finds the intensity another step in the evolution of women’s soccer.
“Anytime we’re competing against each other we’re going to give our best and of course it’s going to relate back to our national teams,” Wambach said. “Those are the most amazing parts about playing sports is you entertain people and you evoke emotion.”
But Wambach will be wrapped in a different kind of motivation Saturday, in the warmth of her hometown crowd. The Rochester-native will get an opportunity to play for a championship in front of family, friends and fans. It’s a comfort zone not just for her, but for the Flash which are 9-1-2 at home and have outscored opponents 22-7.
“You can’t ever take it for granted because it takes so much to get into a championship game whether it be the Olympics or World Cup or the club level,” Wambach said. “It’s a lot of hard work, effort and sacrifice from every single player. To be able to do it in front of your home family, for me, I’m excited. It’s the extra motivation.
“The fans are behind you so it’s an emotional factor. Sometimes when you doubt yourself and you have a bad touch, if you have that energy of the entire stadium in your favor, it makes you forget about the mistake you just made and focus more on the future rather than on the past.”
This will be the fourth straight season – in the fourth different league – the Flash will be playing for a championship.
They arrived in this spot by blanking Sky Blue FC and getting two goals from Carli Lloyd. The Flash clinched the league title and home field advantage on the last day of the regular season with a 2-1 win over Boston.
Portland fought its way into the championship game, erasing a 2-0 deficit and earning a 3-2 overtime win on the road against FC Kansas City.
The teams met twice during the regular season, drawing 1-1 in Portland on July 14 and 0-0 on Aug. 10 in Rochester.
The Thorns also boast U.S. national team star Alex Morgan, but the forward has been sidelined since Aug. 10 with a mild sprain of the medial collateral ligament in her left knee. She was an unused substitute in Portland’s semifinal win.