After two seasons of discontent when the Flash went from the top of NWSL to a sub-.500 team without much apparent direction, the 2016 campaign for the Western New York side will end with a trip to the NWSL Championship. The club literally turned over the entire roster from the opening of the 2014 season and brought in Paul Riley to try and mold the new faces into something resembling a team.
Sunday night, in what figures to stand as the signature match in the four-year history of NWSL, the Flash announced themselves to the country with a dramatic, extra time victory over the Shield-winning Thorns.
Here are a few thoughts on the Flash victory:
the golden boot winner
A year ago, Lynn Williams was little more than a promising rookie who was in the process of spending her entire offseason recovering from microfracture surgery on her knee. Fast forward to Sunday and Williams put a stamp on her Golden Boot season by scoring two goals in five minutes during extra time to help the Flash upset the Thorns, 4-3.
A closer look at the two goals, and Williams’ game in general, offers little doubt that the 23-year old has arrived as one of the elite forwards in the league. The go-ahead goal found Williams as the beneficiary of some extraordinary effort by Abby Erceg and Samantha Mewis who both made sure they would get touches after another patented, Jessica McDonald throw-in sailed into the 18. Williams had already been robbed once by Michelle Betos and ripped another one off the crossbar, but when the chance to give her team another lead, Williams was the picture of calm. Eschewing power for precision, she calmly picked a lane between Thorns defenders and the ball rolled in at the far post past a diving Betos.
Five minutes later Williams, who never seemed to feel the effects of a physical, 120-minute battle, turned on the jets to assist a Mewis-led counterattack. Holding her run to stay onside against slower opposition, Williams was the beneficiary of a world class ball from Mewis, and made a one-touch finish to rival it and give the Flash their second two-goal lead of the day.
the doniak factor
Nine months ago, Makenzy Doniak somewhat shockingly fell out of the 1st round of the NWSL Draft. The Flash, opening the 2nd, were more than happy to grab her. The season began slowly for Doniak as it did for most of the Flash. But once she found it her presence on the right side of the Flash attack became invaluable and she helped serve balls and clear space for Williams and McDonald. The bright lights of the playoffs were no issue for Doniak. She scored a lunch pail goal when she got up over a defender to get to a McDonald cross and finished it with a looping header. Doniak got on the end of another cross after halftime and only one of the saves of the year by Betos kept it out.
Doniak though, was out of the match in the 68th minute, replaced by Taylor Smith. This is not an unusual substitution for the Flash but it highlights a shortcoming in Doniak’s game. In 15 starts during the regular season the 22-year old played the full 90 minutes only once. On only one other occasion did she make it beyond the 80th. Sunday in Portland it seemed as if Doniak’s departure took some of the starch out of the Flash attack and let Thorns left back Meghan Klingenberg off the proverbial hook on a day she did not do her best defending.
Looking ahead of the final, the Spirit are certainly stronger on the right side of their defense which means the Flash are likely to work a good bit of their attack down Doniak’s side for as long as she can last. Looking ahead beyond the final, stamina seems an easy thing to work on. The Flash will be wanting to keep Doniak on the pitch as many minutes as possible.
the 2015 draft
Doniak looks like the star of the Flash’s 2016 draft, but it is Draft Day 2015 that has the Flash heading to Houston this week. After the team missed the playoffs in 2014 they began to tear the club apart and wound up with four first round picks. With the first two they took Abby Dahlkemper and Mewis. Between the two, Dahlkemper has started every game and Mewis has missed matches only for national team call-ups and to be an Olympic alternate. On Sunday, Mewis had a goal, and assist, and lots of good work in midfield and it was a composed Dahlkemper that cleared the would-be equalizer off the line in stoppage time of extra time.
The two later 1st round picks were Williams, discussed above, and Jaelene Hinkle. Technical director Charlie Naimo called Hinkle the “best pure left back in the draft” and she parlayed a strong rookie season into a look from the national team. Hinkle was among the final players cut from the Olympic roster but has held down that left back spot for the Flash for two seasons.
Sabrina D’Angelo, who started in goal for the Flash against the Thorns, was also a 2015 draft pick. Sunday was not D’Angelo’s best match but she brought stability to a position that was rattled by injuries in 2014 and earned her way into the Canadian team where she won a bronze medal in Rio over the summer.
Flash stuck to the game plan
How many times do we see a team defy expectations doing things one way only to get to the biggest game of the season and suddenly start to conform? That was never going to happen on Sunday. Riley knew the best chance for the Flash to win was to score a lot of goals, and he had no problem going with tactics to support it.
“I thought that if there were a lot of goals in the game, that it was our best shot at winning the game,” Riley said in an on-field interview on FS1. “It worked out like that fortunately.”
The Flash were on the back foot at times, particularly the final quarter hour of regulation after the Thorns tied the match and it looked for all the world they would be the winners. But they never packed in their shape and never ran from their identity.
a final without riley
Paul Riley lost two WPS finals as coach of the Philadelphia Independence including one on penalty kicks to his current team, the Flash. If his third trip to a professional final is to be the charm, it will happen without Riley on the sideline. He was sent off on Sunday, apparently after making contact with the fourth official, after taking umbrage with Christine Sinclair’s 1st half goal that cut the Flash lead to 2-1. FS1 cameras later caught Riley sweating out the rest of the match from a box in the upper deck.
Sunday’s NWSL Championship will be the Flash’s 22nd match of the season, and the third without Riley. In May, he was suspended one game after he made contact with the fourth official by simulating a play he was disputing in which Erceg received a second yellow card in Orlando. Two months later Riley was suspended again and fined an undisclosed amount for what was termed “inappropriate conduct directed at match officials.”
Considering this is now Riley’s third offense of the season and that it appears to again involve contact with an official, it may be time for the league to hand out a tougher punishment. The suspension for the final is just the automatic result of the red card. Neither of the other two incidents led to a send off.
Riley actually has valid concerns about the way matches are called in NWSL and there were more than a few blunders on Sunday. Sinclair turning Alanna Kennedy, to get position on her goal, debatable to me, was not one of the three most egregious mistakes on the day. A handball in the box should have put the Thorns on the spot in the opening five minutes. And as the second Flash goal was unfolding Erceg tripped up Lindsey Horan and while the play likely did not affect the goal, the play should have been blown dead.
Officiating continues to be an issue in NWSL. Contacting officials and other inappropriate behavior though is not the way to handle it.