Flash storm back, beat Spirit in shootout to win NWSL title for first time

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Western New York held off a tenacious Washington team for its first-ever NWSL Championship.

HOUSTON – Western New York claimed its first National Women’s Soccer League title on Sunday at BBVA Compass Stadium after goalkeeper Sabrina D’Angelo’s save on Diana Matheson in the fifth round of penalty kicks gave the Flash a 3-2 shootout win, having finished 120 minutes tied, 2-2 with the Washington Spirit.

The game reached penalty kicks after 124th-minute equalizer from Flash striker Lynn Williams snatched victory from the Spirit, who led deep in extra time thanks to two goals from U.S. international Crystal Dunn. Flash midfielder Samantha Mewis, in the 16th minute, equalized after Dunn’s ninth-minute opener, with the 1-1 score holding until Dunn completed her two-goal night in the 92nd minute.

The victory gave Western New York head coach Paul Riley, suspended after being ejected in the Flash’s semifinal, his first professional level women’s league title. Riley twice guided the Philadelphia Independence of Women’s Professional Soccer to title games, losing the 2011 final on penalty kicks to the Flash. 

The Flash responded to Dunn's extra-time goal with an initial increase in energy, but soon into the second period of extra time, the Spirit’s ability to hold the ball regained control of the game, with Washington looking more likely to extend its lead than lose it. That changed suddenly in stoppage time, shortly after Wys had taken a yellow card for time wasting, when McDonald launched a far-post cross from deep on the left flank toward Williams. The 2016 league MVP outleapt the Spirit defense in the 124th minute, converting the equalizer that sent the game to penalty kicks.

Sunday’s intrigue started early as Washington, who had shuffled its central defenders all season, found a way to get three players from that position on the field, sacrificing midfielder Joanna Lohman for defender Megan Oyster. Oyster, the second-year pro who found herself out of head coach Jim Gabarra’s starting teams at various points over the season’s final two months, slotted into a three-woman central defense, with Gabarra starting a 3-5-2 formation for the first time this season.

By the ninth minute, though, it was the Flash defense that was under the microscope, yielding the first goal of the game after Crystal Dunn converted on a balled played over the defense. Oyster, standing over the ball near the center line, played a long ball toward the right side of the penalty area that was misjudged by Flash goalkeeper Sabrina D’Angelo. After Dunn beat D’Angelo and a defender to the ball, she was able to touch it into space before completing a tight-angle finish, giving Washington a 1-0 lead.

That advantage was short-lived, with more poor execution at the defensive end yielding the game’s second goal.  Flash striker Lynn Williams, in possession on the left flank after a counter attack, was able to play a pass across the top of the box to Mewis, standing alone inside the Washington arc. With the Spirit defenders and midfielders failing to close her down, Mewis was able to stroke a ball just inside Kelsey Wys’ left post, making it 1-1.

Four minutes later, Washington’s back line was forced into its first change after seeing starting left wingback Caprice Dydasco carried from the field with a left knee injury. The second-year defender was taken directly to the locker room and replaced by Alyssa Kleiner.

By the middle of the half, an opening defined by transition play settled into the more predictable, with the possession-based Washington keeping control through halftime. Christine Nairn came closest to regaining the Spirit lead in the 33rd minute when testing D’Angelo from distance, while the Flash goalkeeper nearly conceded a chance on her own after a near-handling error in the 42nd minute.

The second half began with renewed energy from Western New York, who was able to make progress down Washington’s left after temporarily switching its formation to a 4-3-3.

But by the 70th minute, Western New York’s energy was well in the past, and the tentative balance that defined much of the first 45 minutes had returned. In the 78th minute, after a Nairn free kick was drilled into a Flash wall, possession was circulated to Ali Krieger at the edge of the penalty box, with the defender’s left-footed shot going just wide of D’Angelo’s far post.

Less than two minutes into extra time, Washington scored when Dunn beat D’Angelo inside the near post with a shot from 16 yards out, converting on a Krieger pass from wide to give the Spirit its second lead of the night.

In the penalty-kick shootout, Western New York gained the first edge after Abby Dahlkemper converted with the tiebreaker’s opening kick, Krieger had her attempt saved at the right post by D’Angelo. After converted kicks by Jaelene Hinkle and Nairn, Western New York returned the advantage when McDonald skied her attempt over the left side of goal. Katie Stengel, a late sub, pulled Washington even with the next attempt, with Williams then putting Western New York back in front. D’Angelo and Wys then sent the shootout to its final kick after stops on Tori Huster and Mewis, with D’Angelo delivering the Flash’s first NWSL title after a diving save on Matheson at her left post.