NWSL continues to make history as Spirit, Flash clash for title

HOUSTON -- One way or the other, October owes McCall Zerboni a ring.

The veteran midfielder was supposed to get married Saturday in Portland, where she and her fiancé own a house and where they both worked until about this time a year ago. But because of what Zerboni and her Western New York Flash teammates did in Portland a week ago, eliminating the NWSL regular-season champion from the playoffs on its own field, the vows will have to wait.

No professional women's soccer league in the United States has crowned a fourth champion, bookkeeping that will change when the Flash face the Washington Spirit on Sunday at BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston. With 29-year-old Zerboni as but one example, the league has two finalists that embody persistence.

"I think the longer you play the more sacrifices you're making, the more things you miss out on," Zerboni said. "The more it becomes a bear to find that spark, to find that inspiration to keep doing what you're doing. My biggest quality that I possess is that I want to do this for the sake of the sport, for my nieces, for my daughters to come. To help grow this sport. It takes a lot of commitment and a lot of sacrifice, especially when you're older and you want to settle down."

Tony Quinn/ISI Photos

Holding midfielder Tori Huster is a "ball winner" for the Washington Spirit, teammate Crystal Dunn says.

It is fair to say neither the Flash nor the Spirit arrived here solely on the coattails of superstars.

While the game will be played in the stadium she calls home during the NWSL season, Carli Lloyd won't be on the field. Nor will Alex Morgan or Christine Sinclair. Only three players who were part of the U.S. Olympic roster will participate in Sunday's game, and one of those was an alternate. Only one player, Washington's Ali Krieger, was part of the U.S. World Cup title last year (although it is worth noting that four Canadian Olympic bronze medalists are in Houston this weekend).

The biggest star present is likely Washington's Crystal Dunn, whose stock took off when, left off the U.S. World Cup roster, she instead used 2015 to dominate the NWSL.

All of that might not be ideal for advertisers, but it is a strong advertisement for a league that is still very much a work in progress.

The two teams in the final were center stage for two of the league's most ignominious moments this season. Western New York hosted a game played on a makeshift field so narrow as to reduce the game to little more than a farce, drawing widespread criticism from players and eventually an apology from commissioner Jeff Plush. In September, Washington clumsily, and without league consultation, played the national anthem with no players on the field in advance of a game against Seattle, lest Megan Rapinoe kneel in protest.

But the same teams are here as proof that the product, packaging mishaps aside, is sound.

Both finalists were question marks when the season began. The Spirit were a playoff team in each of the past two seasons -- in each case slipping in as the last of four seeds -- under the direction of Mark Parsons. When Parsons left to replace Paul Riley in Portland, it was difficult to read the move as anything other than a tacit acknowledgement of Washington's ceiling, the equivalent of a college coach trading a successful mid-major for a power conference fixer-upper.

Yet under Jim Gabarra, coaching a Washington team for the third time in as many pro leagues, the Spirit matched the Thorns for the most wins and had the regular-season title within grasp.

"There was a huge adjustment process," Spirt midfielder Christine Nairn said. "Last year we just kind of wanted to possess, and sometimes over-possess. Whereas everything this year, we're doing it with purpose. He wants us to always play faster. Jim is always challenging us to play one- and two-touch. Even when we're not comfortable taking one and two touches, he's honing that into our heads almost to the point that it's second nature. Through all that hardship of turning the ball over in practice or seeing it on film, we're peaking at the right time."

Roster continuity helped, the coach new but the core familiar. Almost all of Sunday's likely starters were around last season. Many go back beyond that, while Tori Huster, Krieger and Diana Matheson have been regular minute recipients in each of the team's four NWSL seasons. Look around the league and there aren't a whole lot of players like Huster, a four-year starter who lives the low-paying, low-security year-to-year existence of a non-allocated player.

"She's a ball winner," Dunn said of the holding midfielder. "She hunts the ball down. She just works hard, and that's basically what this team is made up of is players that are hard working. That's not easy to come by. You have a couple of players on a team that are usually like, 'I'm going to grind through,' but three people can't make up for 11 players. What's unique about this team is basically the whole team grinds and works hard."

Western New York has plenty of potential star power, from Olympic alternate Sam Mewis to newly crowned league MVP Lynn Williams, who it was also announced Thursday will join the U.S. national team for its training camp and pair of games later this month against Switzerland. It also has Jessica McDonald, who at 28 years old has the curious combination of claims to fame of having played for more teams than the league has played seasons (five teams in four seasons) while also scoring more league goals (31) than any player but Seattle's Kim Little.

Mark Howard/ISI Photos

Western New York Flash forward Jessica McDonald, left, ranks second in career NWSL goals (31).

Williams, who furthered her rising star with two overtime goals in the semifinal, and McDonald give the Flash a front line that spearheads an aggressive high-pressure style. And in McDonald, Williams has a willing and able mentor, just as Mewis does in veteran midfielders like Zerboni and Abby Erceg.

"I am a mom, and I'm a wife, so you can only live so long off of this salary," McDonald said. "But it has been an incredible adventure overall because this league has to start somewhere. It's just to help build this league, not just financially but add on more teams, and for this league to continue in the future for little girls who want to play. So I'm OK with right now and just trying to continue to create some type of history.

"And hopefully crush some more records, as well."

Like McDonald and Huster, Zerboni knows a landscape without a professional league. She won a WPS title in 2011, the high point of her soccer life soon followed by the nadir when the league collapsed. Yet here she is, the twists and turns of pro sports bringing her back to the Flash (and fiancé Scott Vallow, an assistant coach for Western New York) after beginning this season with Boston.

"When that was taken away from me, it just kind of opened up this feeling that I would never want someone to feel the way that I did," Zerboni said of the WPS. "The women that I played with didn't deserve it. ... Something like that was very devastating to all of us. From then on, I think it sparked a fire inside of me that I will do everything I can to make this work."

So even a wedding can wait. For the Flash and Spirit, there is a soccer game to play.

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