The NWSL’s best defense in 2013 has been pretty much dismantled, but the team’s coach isn’t too worried.
Last year the Western New York Flash gave up a league-best 20 goals in 22 games en route to a title-game appearance. But Estelle Johnson has retired, Alex Sahlen – team president and wife of coach Aaran Lines – is pregnant, and Sarah Huffman – who filled in for Sahlen at right back due to injury late in the season – has been traded to Portland.
Oh, and Adrianna Franch, the goalkeeper who backstopped those defenders, tore her ACL in preseason.
But somehow, the panic button hasn’t been hit yet in Western New York. Perhaps the Flash have earned that right after last year’s championship game appearance followed three titles in three different leagues.
“I was in the same position last year, quite honestly. We weren’t allocated a defensive player, and we went out and formed our own back line,” Lines said.
Kat Williamson will help fill the void, although she’ll ironically miss the season-opener Sunday against Washington for a red card she drew against the Flash in last year’s final. Williamson came over as part of the trade in early April that sent Huffman and Spanish playmaker Veronica Boquete to Portland.
Huffman did not plan to report to Western New York anyway, choosing to settle into the home she bought in Portland with partner and Flash striker Abby Wambach. That, combined with new Portland Thorns coach Paul Riley’s eager desire to acquire his former MVP, Boquete, gave Lines negotiating power to add Williamson to his defensive line and add midfield depth with Courtney Wetzel, along with a 2015 first round pick.
Australian goalkeeper Lydia Williams steps into the big shoes left in front of net by Franch, and returners Brittany Taylor and Katherine Reynolds will be asked to more prominently lead the back line. How well that unit gels will likely determine how the Flash perform this season
“Same question marks, different season,” Lines says, with confidence, no contempt . “It’s about how we work together and gel to anchor our team again out of the back four, or the back five with the goalkeeper.”
That about sums it up. With a plethora of talent from the holding midfield role right up to striker, the goals and the buildup play will come. All eyes, though, are on the back line, and particularly how Williams – the likely starter over rookie Kelsey Wys – performs in goal.
Lines will play in variations of a 4-3-3 formation, often looking like a 4-2-3-1, and really any combination of that front six should be among the best in the NWSL.
Wambach tied for second in the NWSL with 11 goals last season and will once again be the focal point of the attack, but 20-year-old Australian Sam Kerr is dangerous on the wing, and midfielder Carli Lloyd played the withdrawn role to perfection in 2013, scoring eight goals despite missing the first month of the season with a broken shoulder.
Behind them, Angela Salem and captain McCall Zerboni clean up just about everything in their holding midfield roles.
Spanish midfielder Vicky Losado and Kiwi forward Emma Kete will try to fit into that mix somehow, too.
“(Kete) definitely has the physical attributes and the pace to adapt well to the U.S. game,” Lines said. “It may take her a little bit, but I like what of I see of her. I like her strength.”
Lines has proven across four leagues now that he’s capable of working with a varying level of talent on his rosters. Count out the Flash at your own peril, it would seem, but the concerns about the brand-new back four clicking are real. Much like Seattle and Portland, the Flash could end up winning high-scoring matches, which would make for a fun race at the top of the table. Expect Western New York to be in the playoff mix. And the way this league shapes up, you just have to be in the mix and you have a legitimate shot at winning it all.
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