Analysis

Title-winning Flash has foundation for prolonged success

ISI Photos-Brad Smith

The youngest starting lineup in the NWSL just won the championship ahead of schedule. Jeff Kassouf looks at what's next for Western New York.

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HOUSTON – The Western New York Flash didn’t need to win Sunday’s National Women’s Soccer League Championship to validate its season. Even being in the match was an accomplishment.

The Flash’s roster was completely rebuilt over the past two years, so much so that former Flash midfielder McCall Zerboni’s midseason return via trade made her the only player who was part of the organization before the year 2015. Western New York wasn’t a small DIY project. It was a gut-job.

So the Flash rebuilt the team around four first-round draft picks in 2015 and set off on a rocky season before reaping the rewards this year, with rookies now becoming sophomores in their professional life, and some – soon to be all four – getting a taste of life with the U.S. national team.

It all made for a base which the Flash felt could be the foundation for a bright future. It’s just that everyone thought that future would come in 2017 or 2018. On Sunday, though, the Flash beat the Washington Spirit in a penalty shootout on Sunday at BBVA Compass Stadium to win the club’s first NWSL title. That the team is expected to grow even more seasoned is a scary thought for the rest of the league.

“We’ll get better,” Flash coach Paul Riley said. “There’s no two ways about it. Sam Mewis will get better. Abby (Dahlkemper) will get better. Jae Hinkle will get better. (Sabrina D’Angelo) will get better. Across the board, they’re young and they’re at the start of their career(s), and this experience will be great for them. Whether we won or lost, to be honest with you, the experience would’ve been great for them.”

Mewis, Hinkle and Dahlkemper were first-round picks in 2015 along with this year’s league MVP, Lynn Williams. D’Angelo was a third-round pick.

As good as Western New York is, with Williams and Jessica McDonald scoring at will, the Flash is still a raw team. Almost every player is age 25 or younger, so naivety is an open secret within the squad. And the team embraced that, making sure not to take itself or Sunday’s stakes too seriously. Players danced around on the field even with the specter of penalty kicks looming.

“We all just knew we were going to win, and I think we’ve had that feeling now for a couple of weeks,” Mewis said. “Just having this kind of undying faith in each other, that’s just how we are. That’s how the team is; we’re always dancing, jumping around, yelling nonsense. We’re such a young group that this spirit, this passion that we have for each other is just so strong, so I think that actually says a lot about us and how we are with each other.”

Washington’s surprising change to a three-back setup caught even Riley off guard, and it stifled the Flash’s league-leading attack for most of the game. Williams’ goal was her only notably dangerous opportunity of the match, but efficiency won the day.

Still, the Spirit’s ability to swallow up not only the Flash’s opportunities, but so much of the energy on which Western New York runs, serves as potential foreshadowing for where the Flash can improve going forward.

“I think the most important thing is they’ll learn from the experience last week in Portland,” Riley said. “I think coming here and learning – playing in the semifinals and finals, they don’t happen often enough in America. In Europe, I think you have a lot more cup games and you get used to playing in one-off game, you have to win the game.

“Last week was really the first time this young group has been in that situation. I think it really did take a lot out of us mentally, too – including the staff, too, coming back from Portland. But we just talked all week about the mental part of the game and how important moving the ball all year has been for us. And we talked about it a lot. Once you get it to the top of the hill, you just have to give it a little poke. Once it starts running down the hill, we’re good to go. We just needed to hold at the top of the hill for the second half – just let it go. Just couldn’t get that little bit of energy that we needed.”

Western New York’s roster is expected to largely remain intact – though NWSL offseasons are usually rife with trades – thanks to the club proactively restructuring contracts for many of its young stars.

A team which spent the entire season refusing to speak about the playoffs or the idea of winning a championship will now be the one with a target on its collective back in 2017. And it will have to figure out how to deal with games like Sunday’s, in which the Spirit played exactly the way teams need to in order to offset the dynamic athleticism of Williams and McDonald.

Or maybe Western New York doesn’t need to adjust at all. Washington executed its game plan nearly perfectly, but still conceded twice and ultimately failed to win the game. Does that say more about the Flash’s talent and ability to beat any system? Or does it hint at the team’s need to adapt – that one of these games, the ball won’t bounce its way?

“Obviously I don’t care (right now),” Riley said about looking toward 2017, smirking as he spoke up over celebratory shouts through the walls from the rest of the team in the locker room.

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