Total overhaul brings Western New York Flash back to the top

Wilf Thorne-ISI Photos

After four title games in four years, Western New York fell off the map. But, as Jeff Kassouf writes, an overhaul of the team's roster and culture revived a young Flash team.

HOUSTON – By even its own players’ and staff’s accounts, the Western New York Flash is a team which probably shouldn’t be in Sunday’s National Women’s Soccer League Championship. Not based off their expectations entering the season, anyway.

Head coach Paul Riley has spent the two weeks since his young team qualified for the playoffs telling everyone that this team is ahead of schedule. No goals were set at the start of the season. The words “playoffs” and “championship” were never uttered but for a single slip of tongue here, one which Riley quickly shut down. Nor were specific goals set by technical director Charlie Naimo, who was largely responsible for building the roster.

Western New York’s name became synonymous with success in leagues past. The Flash won the USL W-League title in 2010, followed by the Women’s Professional Soccer title in 2011, bolstered by an international all-star team. The Flash won the semi-professional WPSL Elite League in 2012 after WPS folded, and returned to the championship in the inaugural season of the NWSL in 2013.

From there, everything went downhill. The Flash finished seventh of nine teams in an abysmal 2014 campaign which came apart at the seams in the middle of the summer. Naimo was brought in by Aaran Lines that offseason to help rebuild the team through the draft. The Southern California-based Naimo has extensive experience developing players in the USL W-League with the Pali Blues, a club which appears on the resumes of the likes of Tobin Heath, Alex Morgan, Lauren Holiday and Christen Press, among others to wear the U.S. national team jersey.

“I like to build things,” Naimo says matter-of-factly.

So build – or, rather, re-build – is what he did. The Flash stockpiled four first-round picks, drafting Abby Dahlkemper and Sam Mewis third and fourth, respectively, and Lynn Williams and Jaelene Hinkle sixth and seventh, respectively, in the greatest single-team draft haul in women’s soccer history. Dahlkemper, Mewis and Williams all played for him with Pali; Hinkle was an opponent who caught his eye while playing for Seattle Sounders Women.

“I believed in that class,” Naimo told FourFourTwo. “And there are some other kids in that class that are special that we don’t have. And it was the perfect timing to rebuild, with the draft picks that we had.”

Twenty-one months later, all four of those players have either been to or will by next week have taken part in training camp with the U.S. national team, with Dahlkemper and 2016 Golden Boot/MVP winner Williams getting their first call-ups this month. Mewis was an alternate for the U.S. at this year’s Olympics. Flash starting goalkeeper Sabrina D’Angelo, a bronze-medalist with Canada, was also a third-round pick in 2015.

Fast track to MVP

Williams’ success is the most surprising. She scored four goals in 17 matches in her rookie campaign while juggling the end of school that spring, but her game still required polishing. Offseason knee surgery set back her winter training until preseason in March, when she was first cleared to touch a ball.

From then, her only direction has been up.

Williams scored 11 regular-season goals before scoring a brace in extra time of last week’s 4-3 semifinal victory over Portland. Now she’s officially on U.S. coach Jill Ellis’ radar, and she says playing in the World Cup and Olympics is absolutely part of her ambition.

Naimo spoke highly of Williams for years – “she’s just scratching the surface,” he told FourFourTwo this week – but she was not a sought-after commodity coming out of college. She was used to flying under the radar by that point, though.

Williams’ first fully healthy season of high-school soccer was her senior year. She had three separate foot surgeries leading up to that season. She didn’t play for any big-name youth clubs or in any heavily-recruited youth tournaments. She only drew interest from two Division I programs: Fresno State, in her hometown, and Pepperdine, three hours south, outside of Los Angeles. Injuries continued in her college years, resulting in meniscus surgery, labrum surgery, a shattered elbow and a fractured bone in her face.

Still, Williams registered 39 goals and 24 assists in college. Much like her high school days, though, she didn’t draw much interest from NWSL teams, making her a somewhat surprising pick at No. 6 overall. Surprising to many, that is, except Naimo.

“I think that what I did at Pepperdine spoke for itself, but at the same time, it’s not a big-name school,” she told FourFourTwo. “So, if I don’t meet Charlie, I don’t think I get drafted. Just because I think he had a connection with New York, he wanted to build a team. He had this idea, so that’s how I think I got here.”

Williams’ MVP season, along with Jessica McDonald’s 10 goals and a host of other young players coming into their own – Mewis and Dahlkemper chief among them – serve as front-facing catalysts of Western New York’s return to the playoffs. But philosophical changes were needed to restore chemistry to a Flash team which was divided in 2015.

Enter Paul Riley.

Rebuilding the spirit of the team

Riley was hired in February, a few weeks prior to the start of preseason, after Aaran Lines – the club’s only previous coach – stepped down from the role in December 2015.

Riley inherited a team which had gone 6-9-5, finishing seventh of nine teams for a second straight season. He also inherited a team which, according to many players, was no longer having fun playing.

“It was at times difficult last year to play soccer and to play for other people, but with this team, Paul just instilled such a good chemistry with us and we were bonded to what he – the process he’s put together for us,” D’Angelo told FourFourTwo. “We love each other, genuinely love each other, and we’re willing to work for each other and that makes a huge difference.”

Ask any player within the organization and they’ll tell you: Riley is a players’ coach. It’s why he was so successful in Philadelphia in WPS. He has a certain blue-collar way of doing things – double-days, extra fitness, underdog mentality – which didn’t translate in his two years in charge of the Portland Thorns, where the roster has since the team’s inception been decidedly more posh. But the approach has worked this year thanks in part to some youth naivety in need of guidance. Veterans in Abby Erceg, McDonald and mid-season acquisition McCall Zerboni provided that on the field.

“The team lacked leadership last year,” said Naimo, who lives in Southern California and performs his role remotely. “There was no on-the-field leadership. There was a bunch of rookies logging a tremendous amount of minutes and they had nobody to turn to. Nobody stepped up ... this year we had several of those (leaders).”

Zerboni played for Riley in Portland and now in Western New York – the organization with which she carved out her place in the soccer landscape in three different leagues from 2011-2014 – so she has seen what works, what doesn’t, and what needed fixing at the club. Zerboni’s return makes her the only player on the Flash roster who was on the team in 2014, indicative of the house-cleaning which took place.

When Riley first took the job, he fielded concerns from players about which areas of the club needed improving. Greater Buffalo, where the team trains, and Rochester, where the team plays its matches, aren’t largely sought-out destinations to begin with. And Western New York had become a place where some players didn’t want to be; the club was being passed by. So Riley took to improving “a laundry list” of seemingly little things, from the quality of the game-day bus to Rochester to team meals in order to “modernize the club a little bit and bring it up to speed.”

That all cost ownership a little extra money, but as Riley says, “I think it makes a huge impact on a small-market city like Buffalo.” Now players finally feel like they have voices. They feel a sense of pride in playing for the badge on their shirts. Most of all, they feel respected.

“For this organization to grow, we will need players to want to come here, to want to come back,” Mewis said. “I certainly do. I am 100 percent in next year. I absolutely want to be part of this again.”

“The respect is through the roof and it’s phenomenal,” Zerboni said. “Everyone is just so respectful towards each other – who they are, what they can do, what they can’t do and what they bring to this team. Paul laid down the line from the beginning. ‘Hey, this is how it’s going to be and we’re going to respect each other.’ And we respect him so much, and he lives by what he says.”

It’s a respect which was lacking over the past few years.

“I think we had difficult personalities in the past,” Zerboni said. “I think we had those large, big names who didn’t really know where they fit in in a small market, and the expectation of them was different. I think that kind of created some turmoil within the teams. I think that, again, it’s just a tribute to the players here. Their heads fit through every door. It doesn’t matter how much success that they acquire; it’s still going to be the same.”

It’s a foundation which should be there for several years to come. The club has already restructured several contracts to reward young players and keep them in Western New York. And they could return in 2017 as defending champions, something that looked like such an unlikely possibility just a few months ago.

“We’re already playing with house money, and that makes you very dangerous,” Naimo said. “And we’re not just happy to be here.”

Read more NWSL Championship coverage here

Jeff Kassouf is the editor of FourFourTwo USA. Follow him on Twitter @JeffKassouf.