- Associated Press - Thursday, September 29, 2016

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - It seems like everything is going right for the Portland Thorns heading into the National Women’s Soccer League playoffs.

The Thorns finished out the regular season with a four-game winning streak and claimed the NWSL Shield for the team with the best record. They also clinched home-field advantage for the first time. They face the Western New York Flash in a semifinal game Sunday.

Forward Christine Sinclair credited first-year coach Mark Parsons. The Thorns (12-3-5) always had talent, she said, but that didn’t always translate into wins.

“The difference is this year we’re a team from the top down,” Sinclair said. “I thought when Mark came on board it changed a lot. He stressed being a team - you know, hanging out outside of soccer practice - and I think you’re starting to see that on the field. We’re willing to do anything for each other.”

Sinclair also recognized the players who were with the team all season while their teammates were in and out in preparation for the Olympics. Sinclair won the bronze medal in Rio with the Canadian national team. The Thorns’ roster also includes U.S. Olympians Tobin Heath, Lindsey Horan, Meghan Klingenberg, Allie Long and alternate Emily Sonnett. Additionally, Amandine Henry played for France in Brazil.

In a pre-match conference call Thursday, Klingenberg unexpectedly took over to sing “Happy Birthday,” even though it was no one’s birthday, and Sinclair dissolved into giggles. Parsons deadpanned: “I have no way to explain.”

Former Thorns coach Paul Riley took over the Flash in February. He said hard work led his young team to the playoffs.

“We didn’t set any goals. Our goal wasn’t to make the playoffs, our goal wasn’t to make the final. Our goal was to win the first game of the season,” Riley said. “That’s really the way we’ve approached every game. We’ve set no goals for the group, we just wanted each player to get a little bit better each game and believe in the process - and things will happen if we do everything right to the best of our abilities.”

The atmosphere at Providence Park could be hostile to the visitors. The Thorns boast the best home attendance in the league with an average of 16,945 fans per game this season.

While Portland is the third team in league history to allow an average of less than one goal a game over the course of the season, the Flash (9-6-5) are just the third team to average at least two goals a game. The Flash are paced by league Golden Boot winner Lynn Williams with 11 goals and five assists.

The Chicago Red Stars (9-5-6) play the Washington Spirit (12-5-3) in the other semifinal match on Friday night at the Maryland SoccerPlex. Neither team has ever played for the league championship.

The two teams met just last weekend with the Red Stars earning the No. 3 seed in the playoffs with a 3-1 victory. It was the Spirit’s second straight lost and denied the team the NWSL Shield.

“The goal is to win a championship,” Spirit coach Jim Gabarra said. “If you don’t make the playoffs you’re obviously not going to win the championship. If you make the playoffs and win the Shield and you don’t win a championship then you still haven’t achieved your ultimate goal.”

Chicago finished the season tied with the Seattle Reign with eight total shutouts. Goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher had six clean sheets.

FC Kansas City won the 2015 NWSL title.

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