Riley's Flash a glimpse of what could have been in Portland

Mike Gridley-ISI Photos

Paul Riley has a chance to oust his former team from the NWSL playoffs, but as Richard Farley notes, focusing on his past risks overlooking wonders of his present.

Paul Riley is supposed to be angry. He’s supposed to feel wronged, upset, perhaps even confused by what happened over the last two years in Portland. That's what conventional wisdom would say, anyway.

Having left the Rose City last fall without a new contract from Thorns FC, the current Western New York Flash head coach should want revenge. He is supposed to see Sunday’s semifinal at Providence Park as his chance at redemption.

The only problem with that theory: Riley hasn’t given it a second thought.

“Oh my God, not at all,” Riley told FourFourTwo when asked about the assumption. With a chance to knock his former team out of the playoffs, is redemption on his mind? “(It’s) not even close to being at the forefront.”

Some bitterness would be understandable. Riley arrived in Portland ahead of the 2014 season with a pristine reputation, having won two coach-of-the-year awards in the National Women’s Soccer League’s predecessor, Women’s Professional Soccer. With the Thorns, the Long Island-native inherited a title-winner that, despite a disappointing regular season, used a playoff run to claim the NWSL’s first title in 2013. When former U.S. women’s national team standout Cindy Parlow Cone left the team’s bench that fall, Riley came on board.

Two years later, Riley went the way of Cone, with less success but for similar reasons. After third- and sixth-place finishes, the squad’s internal fractures – problems that nearly stymied the team in 2013, too – could no longer be ignored. With the likes of Alex Morgan, Christine Sinclair and Tobin Heath at its disposal, the team had unparalleled talent, but that only made Portland’s performances an unparalleled disappointment. In trading Morgan this offseason, the Thorns began their overhaul.

Riley never got his chance with the new-look Thorns, though. Allowed to leave after the 2015 season, the 53-year-old didn’t get a shot at shaping a squad that received what became four prominent internationals for Morgan in a blockbuster trade. While others in the same situation might cite that as a reason to feel wronged, Riley hasn’t let that missed opportunity dampen his feelings for the Thorns.

“I love the fans, I love the ownership,” he says, without changing cadence or tone, his reverence of the league’s marquee club as genuine as his excitement for Sunday’s showdown. He’s still in touch with the higher-ups at the club, he says. Owner Merritt Paulson, president Mike Golub, general manager Gavin Wilkinson – all “unbelievable,” he insists. They all caught up “a lot” two weeks ago, after the Flash’s 3-2 loss in Portland.

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“[The club’s] just unbelievable people, and they’ve done an unbelievable thing. For me, I don’t feel [negative] at all. I want them to win. Not this game, obviously, but I want them to be successful.”

The story of Sunday’s semifinal

He still calls Thorns FC the “flagship” team of the league, but to focus too much on Riley’s Portland past misses the real marvel of his return: Western New York is not even supposed to be there.

Ignored before the season, lightly regarded during it, the Flash was supposed to be trending down after two straight seventh-place finishes. Instead, a team starting six players age 23 or younger -- the team with the youngest XI in the league (24.1 years old, on average) -- bested the two-time defending NWSL Shield winners, the Seattle Reign, for the league’s final playoff spot. That nobody saw this coming reinforces the idea this may be too much too soon.

“We all thought we were at least a year away, another draft away,” Riley says, explaining the view he and technical director Charlie Naimo had at the onset of the season. For a squad with only one U.S. international (Olympic alternate Samantha Mewis), there was only so much you could reasonably expect.

“We have the second pick and the seventh pick (in the college draft) this year, so we figured two more first-round picks will be two more starters. (That) would give us some depth in the squad, some strength. Maybe it will put some more pressure on the group next year.”

Instead of playing for 2017, though, Riley reminded the women’s soccer world why he was such a highly regarded coach after his time in WPS. Then, in the league’s second season (2010), Riley took the expansion Philadelphia Independence to the league title game only to be outgunned by an FC Gold Pride team built around Sinclair and Brazilian icon Marta. One year later, the Independence returned to the final only to lose a penalty-kick shootout to another team centered on Sinclair and Marta. This time, that team was the Western New York Flash.

Lauren Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

A shootout denied Riley a title 5 years ago against WNY. (Lauren Mackson-USA TODAY Sports)

Back in 2016, Riley was inheriting vastly different Western New York squad. Gone were the days of the disproportionate spending that could lure a Marta-level talent. The team was in transition, with Naimo helping shape an organization that was becoming less a product of its family leadership. Life was changing for former head coach Aaron Lines and wife Alex Sahlen -- the team president and former player -- and with it, the structure of the club had to change, too. Poor results also forced change.

When Riley arrived for preseason in mid-March, fully inheriting Lines’ place on the sidelines, the squad looked nothing like the one that had beat his Philadelphia team five years earlier. That team won a title. The group Naimo had assembled wasn’t even thinking playoffs.

Youth in need of guidance

“After probably a week, we were looking at each other, among ourselves and the players, and said we’re not sure,” Riley concedes now, asked to think back to his expectations in March. “It’s going to be a long, difficult season.”

That feeling didn’t last long. Though Riley was initially unsure what exactly Naimo had built, the team’s energy was impressive from the start, as was its chemistry. It was enough to convince Riley to target some reinforcements, including New Zealand international Abby Erceg, a 26-year-old defender and midfielder who was being squeezed out of playing time in Chicago. McCall Zerboni also re-joined the organization in a mid-season trade with Boston.

Along with Jessica McDonald, a 28-year-old striker who acquired in the offseason, the imports became the team’s oldest starters. They also provided a veteran reference point at each level of the field: McDonald as a partner for 23-year-old attacker Lynn Williams; Zerboni to help shepherd 23-year-old Mewis; and Erceg to help nurture a central defense made up of a 23-year-old (Abby Dahlkemper) and a 21-year-old (Alanna Kennedy).

The results weren’t immediate. Despite an opening-day victory over the defending champions, FC Kansas City, Western New York only won two of its first five games. After that, though, the Flash went on a run of six wins in seven games, with July 1’s 2-0 home victory over the Chicago Red Stars changing how Riley saw his unproven squad.

NEXT: When Riley knew the Flash was for real