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The Lowdown: Is 2017 NWSL Championship a rematch or isn’t it?

Christine Sinclair scored the first of three Thorns’ goals in last year’s semifinal. They were not enough though, in a 4-3 loss to the eventual champion Flash (photo: Portland Thorns FC)

This weekend’s NWSL Championship features a rematch of last season’s memorable semifinal that most fans would select as the most exciting game played across the five-year history of the league. Or does it?

When the Sahlen family sold the Western New York Flash to Steve Malik earlier this year, Malik moved the club to North Carolina and rebranded it the Courage. The Courage elected to distance themselves from the Flash, starting their history fresh with the 2017 season. So as title match approaches there will be no formal acknowledgement of a back-to-back NWSL Championship build, and there will be no formal promotion about a rematch.

This is not an unfamiliar situation in the annals of team sports. Whether it be the San Jose Earthquakes, Cleveland Browns, or Seattle Supersonics, it seems that every time a franchise moves there are difference parameters attached. So I ask – what is the proper way to acknowledge the histories of the Flash, Courage, as well as the linear history that will forever link the two? As it turns out there is no simple answer.

One note before I make a few points. Franchise deals amount to massive legal documents. Decisions about whether to formally treat these moves as new or continuous franchises are often made at the time of the transaction. So this is not a plea for anything to change because it most likely is not possible.

In the here and now, it’s a rematch

The short-term reality is this. It feels like a rematch.

“It’s kind of a rematch in a way,” Courage midfielder McCall Zerboni said. “I think Portland’s kind of viewing it that way.”

Thorns coach Mark Parsons rejected the word rematch, but that appeared to be more of his personal philosophy on how to approach the match. And he did say that it doesn’t matter if it is a rematch or not because both teams have evolved and gotten better.

Several times in recent weeks, Courage coach Paul Riley has made comparisons to last season when discussing the Courage. At Yurcak Field following a late-season draw with Sky Blue he said, “We’re a lot healthier this year. I think last year we were down to about 13 healthy players at this point.”

Sunday, after beating the Red Stars, he spoke In comparative terms again, and did the same during Tuesday’s national conference call.

“When we started we used to call each other the Bad News Bears. We couldn’t get five passes in practice,” he said referring to his first preseason with the Flash in 2016. “This year coming in they were fitter than last year. They knew what to expect. That was a huge plus for us. The lineup’s not much different than it was last year.”

Sounds to me like Riley and the players feel like it’s the same team bidding for a repeat.

Ignoring the linear history that has 14 of the 20 current players as holdovers from the 2016 Flash also takes away from the remarkable building process that began in Philadelphia on January 16, 2015. That was the day the Flash drafted Abby Dahlkemper, Sam Mewis, Lynn Williams, Jaelene Hinkle, and Sabrina D’Angelo. All five started the 2016 playoff games and all but D’Angelo—now the backup goalkeeper—project to start on Saturday.

“For Paul and his staff to achieve this two years in a row I think it’s a credit to the hard work and commitment that’s put in,” Parsons said of his weekend opponent. “And I think it’s credit to the way (Courage technical director) Charlie Naimo has built that roster and what they did at the draft a couple of years ago.”

Sounds to me like Parsons feels like it’s the same team. In fact just about anyone paying attention can see that the 2017 Courage are a natural progression from the 2016 Flash. Same team, different city.

The fan bases might disagree

Notice I said almost anyone. There are scores of still-jaded Flash fans in the Western New York area who would just as soon not hear that the team they cheered on to a championship is continuing its success elsewhere. And I’m sure the Courage fans who sold out the stadium for last weekend’s semifinal have little or no interest in squawking about trophies won when the franchise played in a different city, under a different name, and none of them had an inkling it would one day be in Cary.

(writer’s sidenote: This is part of an interesting and broad discussion about fan culture. If a new hockey fan decided to root for the Montreal Canadiens they would somehow lay claim to the club’s 24 Stanley Cup championships even though the end of this season will mark a quarter of a century since their last.)

To that end it makes perfect sense for the Courage not to have a star over their crest and not to pound their chests and display banners for the 2016 championship won by the Flash. And it makes perfect sense that the Flash website—the club continued on in United Women’s Soccer and continues to run academy programs—recognizes their trophies from NWSL and other leagues.

The closest soccer precedent is from Major League Soccer where the San Jose Earthquakes were sold and moved to Houston to become the Dynamo in 2006. At the time, Major League Soccer said it was holding the Earthquakes history for a future expansion team which came about in 2008. The Earthquakes won MLS Cup in 2001 and 2003 and the Dynamo won in 2006 and 2007. The league and clubs view them as each having won two titles and should the current Earthquakes win MLS Cup it will be considered their third.

Again this makes perfect sense for the fan bases and the ownership groups, but from a pure soccer standpoint, the Dynamo won MLS Cup their first two years in Houston because they inherited the roster that won the Supporters Shield during the club’s last season in San Jose. Seven players won MLS Cup in both cities including Dwayne De Rosario who was on all four Cup winners. To deny that they won the championship four times in seven seasons is to deny the linear soccer reality that build and maintained the core of a championship side.

Final take

Personally, I cannot separate the Courage from the Flash, and will try my best to approach this match as if the Flash are trying to repeat as champions. I can’t ignore the fact that the evolution of the team has several signposts planted in the road they took to get here and that many of those signposts are in Western New York. It’s too difficult to ignore the 2015 draft (where it is easy to forget they traded Sam Kerr for the pick that yielded Sam Mewis), the hiring of Paul Riley, the return of McCall Zerboni, and other factors that helped make the 2017 North Carolina Courage what they are today.

And if they win on Saturday, the players will deserve to be recognized as repeat champions.

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