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The Lowdown: Flash emerging from rare slump

For various reasons, Carli Lloyd (left) and Abby Wambach have not often been on the field together this season. (Copyright EriMac Photo for The Equalizer)

The Western New York Flash play in Houston this week and for the first time in a long time, trying to get a read on the team is difficult. The defending regular season champions thrashed the Thorns 5-0 on the weekend in the most lopsided NWSL match to date, but the five matches before that represented the worst slump for the club not only in NWSL but factoring in the three leagues they played in before that.

“We’re a work in progress,” head coach Aaran Lines said Monday. “There is a lot of football still to be played.”

To recap, the Flash lost a sloppy match in Washington 3-2 on May 17. In the postmatch media scrum, Abby Wambach challenged her teammates to step up behind her and Carli Lloyd. From there they went to the West Coast, where the Thorns beat them 2-1 and the Reign scored late to eke out a 2-2 draw. A full week of rest followed and then a visit from the Dash, who had only won one game to that point. The Flash led 1-0 at halftime but made several poor errors to lose 2-1. A loss in Kansas City that was more lopsided than the 1-0 scoreline made it five straight without a win and the second two-game losing streak inside a month after not having one all of last season.

“We’ve just been really trying to find ourselves as a team and that doesn’t happen overnight,” defender Brittany Taylor said. “From last year to this year we have about half of our roster new. So it doesn’t happen overnight to jell and come together and really find our niche as a team. And that’s a process. I think in small groups we’ve been able to show that passion and workrate, but it hasn’t clicked yet for us.”

Things began to change Saturday in Portland against a Thorns side the Flash had never beaten. With Lines back home in New York on baby watch, the Flash led 4-0 at halftime en route to the most lopsided win in league history. Samantha Kerr scored twice, had an assist, and drew a penalty on the way to being named Player of the Week.

“Everybody, no matter who was starting, not starting, played, didn’t play, everybody bought into it and we felt it on Saturday night,” Taylor said. “As everybody could tell we played together as a team and battled together for every single thing for every minute of that game and that’s what made us successful on that day.”

Even with the win the Flash remain under .500 at 4-5-2 and their 14 points leaves them five off the place for a playoff berth. It is an unfamiliar, but not untenable position for a franchise that has been in championship matches the last four seasons.

“Obviously you’re trying to change things,” Lines said of the losing streak. “You’re trying to build your players up. We lost those games by one goal. Were we playing our best soccer, no, but we were in every one of those.

“Hopefully we’re through that phase now and move on.”

Lines has long said that when he recruits players, one of his first inquiries is whether they are willing to put in the necessary work to win a championship. For Taylor, that was one of the main selling points when she signed as a free agent ahead of the inaugural NWSL season. But as the roster turns over each season, it is up to each player to buy into what the Flash are trying to do.

“I wanted to be a part of that reputation that we do compete for a championship every single year,” she said. “So there’s that underlying foundation of what the organization is about and that is about winning and being successful. So you always have that confidence behind you knowing it’s a program that has been able to do that. But at the end of the day the players that are here need to be able to buy into that and believe that. So I think again there is an underlying confidence of what this program is about, but unless you believe it and we come together as a team, it doesn’t matter.”

McCall Zerboni has been with the Flash since the 2011 WPS season. She said there was a minor tweak to the shape in Portland but that ultimately the turnaround was due to a better mental outlook.

“At the end of the day it’s not so much that it’s the toughness of the players we have,” Zerboni said. “We should be able to play anyone anywhere and we can play anyone anywhere and it’s about getting the job done collectively. No matter what shape we’re in, on the field or off the field, we’re in this together.”

One situation that was unusual for the Flash followed the loss in Washington. Abby Wambach lit into her teammates, never mentioning anyone by name but making it clear that more was expected from the rest of the roster to support her and Carli Lloyd. Taylor and Zerboni both brushed it off as a non-issue. Lines hardly made a big deal of it but did go as far as to say the issue was addressed within the team.

“Obviously we talked about that as a group and we want to take those things internally in the future,” Lines sad. “I think Abby was trying to just motivate her teammates in that moment and that may have come off a little differently from what she wanted. We’re all trying.”

Wambach was not part of the 5-0 win in Portland after spraining her knee early in the loss to the Dash over Memorial Day weekend. She will not play this week either, officially due to national team call-up.

Meanwhile, the Flash continue to get better on paper. They recently signed 20-year-old Australian Tiegen Allen, who Lines sees as an outside back once her paperwork clears and she joins the club. Ever the chess player, he did not budge when asked what side Allen is best suited to. “Both,” he said.

Right or left, the fullback spot mirroring Katherine Reynolds has been lacking and part of the reason the Flash have not been able to play with as much width as last season. The inside spot next to Taylor has also been in flux, though the Best XI defender views that as a strength.

“The most important part is that we have our mentality, and we have our fundamentals, and how we want to play as a back line” she began. “We have good enough players. It doesn’t matter who is coming in next to me, or at outside back, or in goal. We have our core of what we want to do and that’s why we’re bringing these players in.

“It might take an Amy Barczuk to be able to step in because we need a feisty, hard-nose defender that can defend forward and battle and do everything. Or we might need a Kat Williamson who might come in with speed to deal with a little more (pace) up top. So I think that’s a benefit to us that we have different options and depending on options, coach might make a decision based on what he sees as a better fit.”

Last season the Flash had a stretch where they played eight road matches out of 10. They went 2-2-4 over the stretch and then earned 14 of 18 possible points the rest of the way to finish top of the table. This year, Lines is pointing to a lengthy home stretch that he hopes will help bolster the results. Following Wednesday’s trip to Houston, the Flash play the next four at home and seven of eight overall. During that time there will be two visits from Seattle but more important meetings with Chicago, Washington, and Kansas City, all situated above the Flash but well within range. As Lines continued to remind, there is plenty of football still to be played.

Week 9 Takeaways

Here are a few soccer-related takeaways from Week 9:

— There has been a recent Twitter uproar about how every Player of the Week honor goes to a player with goals or assists. I cannot disagree with that position. Lauren Barnes was superb for the Reign against the Red Stars on Saturday night. Barnes was the biggest reason the match was scoreless at halftime and for me was the best player in NWSL during Week 9.

— No defensive midfielder in NWSL can start a counterattack as quickly and effectively as Becky Edwards.

— Don’t look now but FC Kansas City is rolling. The Blues have not conceded a goal on their current, three-match win streak and are unbeaten in five. Their second-place standing is a bit misleading because they concede two games in hand to the Red Stars and Spirit, but after a slow start it appears things are starting to click on the Kansas-Missouri border. Amy Rodriguez’s scoring prowess has taken pressure off Lauren Holiday and the emergence of Jenna Richmond has stabilized midfield. And it will only get better once Sarah Hagen arrives after national team friendlies. The only bad news is the glut of players set to miss at least one match to suit up for the U.S.

Free Kicks

— Randy Waldrum on Tiffany McCarty, who scored two goals in Sunday’s win at Sky Blue: “With Tiff, it’s all about, if she knows you believe in her then you start to get something out of her. I can’t speak to what her situation was in Washington last year, but I knew she could score goals. She’s got a knack for being around the goal in the right place at the right time. I just felt like if we could ever get her confident and going back to doing the things she did so well during her senior year in college, and that’s turning and running at players and having the confidence that you can face up and be dangerous. She just knows that we believe in her and it’s more of a confidence than anything else.

— Whitney Engen on making her debut with the Dash: “It was fun. Everyone loves a win. Especially to come in after a good week of training; I thought we came out and performed really well tonight against a tough Sky Blue team. I’ve been watching a lot of this league obviously from abroad and it’s really cool to finally be part of it.”

— Engen’s teammate, Meghan Klingenberg, was not available Sunday because her International Transfer Certificate—ITC, as it is known—did not clear. Odd considering Klingenberg and Engen made the same exact transfer. “Don’t get me started on that,” Waldrum said.

— The ironwomen updates are over. Jen Buczkowski was the winner of most minutes played from the start of NWSL. Her streak ended after 62 minutes on Saturday when FC Kansas City Vlatko Andonovski replaced her with Amy LePeilbet. Buczkowski played 3,122 straight minutes before coming out. CoCo Goodson’s streak ended the next night when she was benched after halftime, but Sky Blue had played one less game so Goodson’s streak was 3,015.

— Kim Little 11 now has 11 goals and Amy Rodriguez 9, making it very likely a new standard for the golden boot will be established this season. Lauren Cheney/Holiday led the circuit with 12 in 2013.

— Michelle Betos faced the worst type of debut a goalkeeper can have—coming in to face a penalty after the starter gets sent off. That’s what faced Betos on Saturday after Nadine Angerer’s red card, and so Betos’ first game action for the Thorns was staring down a Carli Lloyd penalty. Lloyd converted to give the Flash a 2-0 lead and leave Betos as the last line of defense on a side reduced to 10. The silver lining is she will get at least one match to start from scratch while Angerer serves her automatic suspension.

— A league spokesperson confirmed that Angerer received a straight red for fouling Samantha Kerr. There had been some confusion because of how long it took for the card to come out and because the camera was trained on Lloyd before panning back in time to see Angerer being shown the red.

— The Reign were 5-14-3 last season but have worked their way to being a .500 franchise after a 9-0-2 start. Their 11 straight without a loss is a league record. Impressively the streak lives on even as the Reign have found themselves behind 1-0 in each of their last four matches.

— The Red Stars allowed three goals to the Reign marking the first time this season they gave up more than one in a match.

— The Flash are getting the attention for struggling, but the Spirit went the other way after the 3-2 win last month. In fact the Spirit have not lost since, and a team that once waited to lose has pulled off some unlikely results during a 4-0-1 stretch. Be sure to read Jennifer Gordon’s look at how the Spirit have turned things around mentally.

— Crystal Dunn was never supposed to play for the Spirit this week, but it must be disheartening to see her name on the injury report rather than in the lineup for the U.S. this weekend. Dunn has a left hamstring strain. She was replaced on the camp roster by Rachel Van Hollebeke.

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