NWSL champion WNY Flash to relocate to North Carolina

Title winners three months ago, the Flash has played its last game in Western New York.

The defending NWSL champion Western New York Flash will relocate to North Carolina ahead of the 2017 season, according to multiple league sources.

The sale of the franchise, which played its home games in Rochester, N.Y., through the first four seasons of NWSL, is expected to be announced in the coming days. Flash players were informed of the news on Thursday, per sources.

North Carolina FC, which is based in Cary, N.C., is owned by local businessman Stephen Malik, who announced in December his intentions to acquire an NWSL franchise within six months. North Carolina FC is the new name of the rebranded Carolina RailHawks, which Malik purchased in October 2015.

The Western New York Flash franchise is the most decorated in professional women’s soccer in the United States, having won championships in four different leagues.

Western New York won the 2016 NWSL Championship in penalty kicks over the Washington Spirit after Lynn Williams scored a dramatic equalizer in the final seconds of extra time. The Flash also claimed the NWSL Shield in 2013 – the league’s inaugural season – but fell to the Portland Thorns in the championship game.

The Flash had won three straight championships in three different leagues heading before the start of the NWSL, first winning the now defunct USL W-League in 2010, and then conquering Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) in 2011 with a squad that included Marta, Alex Morgan and Christine Sinclair. The Flash won the semi-pro WPSL Elite League in 2012.

Away from the field, the franchise has struggled to take root while splitting time between home games in Rochester and training sessions and headquarters in Elma, N.Y., outside of Buffalo. The Flash averaged 3,868 fans in 2016, ranking fifth in the 10-team league but hardly enough to ever fill the team’s 13,000-plus seat venue. The team averaged just 2,860 fans in 2015, second-worst in the league that season.

Western New York also came under scrutiny last July for hosting a match against Seattle Reign FC on an field drawn far short of FIFA’s minimum width. The field was estimated to be 100 yards by 58 yards, squeezed into the outfield of a baseball stadium a few blocks from the team’s usual home, which was double-booked for a concert featuring the group TLC.

The franchise finally got back on track on the field this year after two straight seasons of missing the playoffs. Western New York’s championship run in 2016 was the culmination of a cultural shift that took place upon Paul Riley taking over as head coach at the beginning of last season.

Riley’s future, as well the future of the rest of the front office, is unclear.

The expected relocation of Western New York to North Carolina could be complicated by the persistence of HB2, often referred to as North Carolina’s bathroom law. The legislation, passed in March 2016, eliminated a Charlotte law protecting transgender people’s use of public restrooms. HB2 also made it illegal for further state ordinances to expand upon similar protections for the LGBT community.

In August, in response to HB2, the National Basketball Association moved its All-Star Game, scheduled for this year, from Charlotte to New Orleans. The NCAA also moved December's women's College Cup from Cary to San Jose, California, in response to HB2.

In September, Malik trademarked the name Carolina Courage, the name of the women’s team which operated in the Women’s United Soccer Association from 2001 to 2003.

The NWSL is entering its fifth season in 2017 and features 10 teams. Two-time league champion FC Kansas City is also expected to have new ownership by the start of the season.