Why the Flash will (or will not) win the NWSL title
Five months ago, before the first kick for the 2016 NWSL season, few considered Western New York a viable playoff contender. Talented? Perhaps. Dangerous? Sure, if things came together, but within the fog of an organization in flux, that potential was obscured. Few thought the team’s season would extend to a 21st game, but come Sunday in Portland, the rest of us become officially wrong.
That off-field flux may be one of the most under-appreciated aspects of this year’s run. During its first years in the league, Western New York was a family-run team, with president/player Alex Sahlen and husband/head coach Aaron Lines guiding the club to the NWSL final. It was a natural progression for a team that had won three-straight titles (in three different leagues) before, but in the seasons that followed, Sahlen's and Lines’ influence waned. Off-the-field priorities became a bigger part of their lives, leaving the club in need of a new model.
Enter Charlie Naimo, a much-respected figure from Southern California’s soccer scene. In late 2014, he took over Lines’ responsibilities as Technical Director. This winter, Paul Riley replaced Lines as coach, his arrival bringing four years of first-division experience as well as a reputation for identifying and developing young talent.
The combination has built a team that has exceeded expectations, albeit one with its best days in the future. Only two players among Riley’s first-choice XI are in the prime of their careers. Whether that helps or hurts Sunday in Portland, the Flash has a brighter tomorrow.
Why the Flash will win the NWSL title
In terms of speed, athleticism and physicality, no team is a tougher match up than the Flash. While those qualities are no guarantee of execution, they narrow every opponent’s margin for error. You cannot make mistakes against Western New York.
Slow on the ball? Jessica McDonald’s in your face. Poor touch? Samantha Mewis is there to claim it. Lazy with your pass wide? Lynn Williams can close out a fullback in seconds. High up the field, the Flash can be a nightmare.
Those three players deserve more than mere allusions. Williams, the league’s Golden Boot winner, has established herself as a U.S. national team candidate thanks to an all-around skillset that complements her athleticism. McDonald, a threat leading Portland and Houston’s attacks the last two seasons, shook off some of her finishing issues to become a penalty-box terror. And Mewis, a U.S. international, reads and reacts to the game well enough to allow Riley to use a two-woman central midfield.
Together, the trio spearheads a setup with a very distinct approach. The attack will play quick, direct, and rely on its forwards to win balls. If they lose them, Western New York is committed to pressing other teams into the ground, relying on Mewis and fellow midfielder Abby Erceg to win passes that turn into 50-50-balls. With the effort of McCall Zerboni and Makenzy Doniak wide, fullbacks rarely offer safe outlets. More often than not, you either have to test Mewis and Erceg or give up and play long.
If teams get through the Flash's pressure, a strong defense led by Abby Dahlkemper and Alanna Kennedy holds its own, but with Riley’s aggressive approach, that burden’s occasionally too much. Still, the formula has Western New York in the playoffs. One more strong performance, and it will get the Flash to a final.
Why the Flash won’t win the NWSL title
Beyond the tactical concerns, there’s the feeling this is one year too soon. Williams, Mewis and Dahlkemper are in their second years. Kennedy is only 21. Young players round out the team in goal, (Sabrina D’Angelo), at both fullback positions (Jaelene Hinkle, Elizabeth Eddy), and in midfield (Doniak). Strong through most of the season, the team stumbled near the finish before finally clinching its playoff spot last week in Boston. Is this squad ready to compete at another level?
Perhaps not, though the reason may go beyond its mere youth. Though Western New York finished fourth in the league, it can be argued the Flash is not the league’s fourth-best team. The team finished only two points ahead of the Seattle Reign, with a favorable schedule that allowed the Flash to play 20 percent of its games against league-worst Boston undoubtedly helping the team’s cause.
The Flash don’t have to apologize for the Breakers being bad, but it does inform what the team has accomplished. Best attack in the league, by five goals (40 on the season)? Boston conceded 47 in 20 games. Plus-14 goal difference? Well, Boston only scored 14 times. The Breakers have separated themselves from the pack in a bad way. Combine that with an unbalanced schedule -- one that saw Seattle play the first-place Thorns four times -- and it’s more difficult to evaluate the Flash’s arrival to this point.
To the eye, the Flash offers a series of problems. The team’s pure physicality is undeniable. Whether Western New York has refined its formula enough to take down the Thorns is something different. And if that upset comes, Riley’s young squad will have to pull off a second surprise in Houston.
Richard Farley is the West Coast Editor of FourFourTwo USA. Follow him on Twitter @richardfarley.