Back at the end of 2015 when Aaran Lines was contemplating the end of his run as the head coach of the Western New York Flash, he began calling perspective replacements. One of those calls was to his old rival Paul Riley. The two-time WPS Coach of the Year and former Portland Thorns FC manager told Lines he was interested in the job if it came open.
“We talked a couple of times and never really got that far along,” Riley said. “I sent him an email telling him I was interested but I just happen to be able to do it with the club teams going on.”
Riley is heavily involved in the Long Island youth soccer scene and his two years in Portland were a strain not only on his youth clubs, but his family that stayed behind. Even before the Thorns decided not to bring him back he had suggested that another year across the country might not be feasible. Riley figured 2016 was a good year to take a step back from the professional ranks and focus on things with his youth teams.
“To be honest,” he said, “I had decided to take the year off.”
In Western New York, Lines announced on December 22 that he was stepping down as head coach but would remain in the organization. Lines was the Flash’s founding coach and over seven years he led them to three championships across four different leagues of varying levels. One of them was on penalties over Riley’s Philadelphia Independence in what turned out to be the last WPS match ever played.
“We’ve been great competitors against each other. We’ve coached against each other in three different leagues. He rubs it in that he’s won a few off of me in the big ones. So I have to give him that.”
After Riley more or less turned down the job, the Flash entered the new year and headed toward the draft without a coach. Two days prior they acquired Jess McDonald from the Dash in a three-way trade that saw Sydney Leroux go to Kansas City.
“It’s all about surprises,” McDonald said of being traded to a team with a vacancy in the coach’s office. “It’s all about adjustment and how you’re going to handle things.”
The draft came and went. The Flash, picking 9th and 11th, landed Michaela Hahn and Makenzy Doniak. And they landed Britt Eckerstrom at No. 26 as the first goalkeeper off the board. But they left Baltimore still searching for a head coach. Lines left Baltimore still focused on hiring Riley.
Lines was not about to give up though. Riley reached out to congratulate him on the draft and more conversations ensued. “He was relentless. He just kept coming and coming.”
Lines eventually flew to Long Island and took Riley out to dinner. “We chatted about the roster and the facilities. I went up last week and had a chance to see it all.”
Riley was finally named coach of the Flash last Friday. Unlike his last job in Portland where he took over the defending champions, Riley will be trying to build up a young roster and reverse a two-year run of missing playoffs. And unlike his first job with the expansion Philadelphia Independence where he and Terry Foley built the squad from scratch, Riley is taking over a team whose roster is all but set.
“A lot of pieces are in there,” Riley said. “It’s just a matter of putting the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle together on the training field and seeing where everybody fits. We have a lot of pace, a lot of youthful energy and exuberance. Hopefully they’ll be good.”
Youth and speed are good ways to look at the current Flash roster. And those elements could mesh with Riley’s desire to push his players hard on fitness from the moment they arrive at camp. Multi-practice days last well into the teeth of the regular season.
“In comparison to most coaches, he never let us bring the tempo down,” McDonald, the only member of the Flash roster to play for Riley, in Portland two years ago, said. “If you didn’t bring the tempo back up or play at full speed at practice then he would chew you out a little bit. He would never let you jog to the next cone after making a pass. It would literally be a sprint to the next thing which was really awesome. It helped us to last longer than 90 minutes in a game.”
Only one other Flash player has even been in a camp with Riley. When he was an assistant at a U-20 camp he had Sam Mewis as one of the players.
“I’m definitely really excited,” Mewis said. “I’ve met Paul and I have heard really great things about him as a coach. I think he’s going to be great for our particular group of players because we’re so young and hungry and we need someone who has experience and who knows how this league works. I think it’s going to be a great fit. I’m really excited to talk to him soon.”
Mewis was one of four 1st round picks the Flash had in what was a very successful 2015 draft. She and Jaelene Hinkle both earned national team callups and were part of Olympic qualifying. Lynn Williams showed her speed and ability to menace defenses even though she spent the first part of the season shuttling back and forth from Pepperdine and later injuring her knee (Williams is recovering and should be in preseason.)
And then there is Abby Dahlkemper. A logjam at center back in 2015 forced Dahlkemper to spend most of the season playing right back or holding midfield. With last year’s central defense pair of Brittany Taylor and Whitney Engen having both been traded, one of Riley’s first decisions as Flash coach is that Dahlkemper will be a full-time center back in 2016.
“Absolute, 190%,” he said of the chances that Dahlkemper will play in the middle. “I think she’s got a chance of making the national team at some point. She’s going to lead the backline. It’s just a matter of finding a partner for her. I’m really excited to coach her.”
Central defense could be of particular importance in Western New York this season because the two biggest concerns are the points on the field directly in front of and behind the area Dahlkemper will patrol. Riley envisions a possible holding midfielder by committee after the club traded Becky Edwards to Orlando. And in goal, Eckerstrom will be backing up Sabrina D’Angelo who has international experience but played only seven matches as an NWSL rookie in 2015.
“She’s got potential, no question,” Riley said. “We’ll see how she does. She got off really well last year and made one or two bloopers. It’s just getting used to the caliber of play. The cross is a little bit faster when it’s whipped in. The corner is a little bit more driven. Even at the national team level, you’re not playing the U.S. every night.”
Training camp opens in a few weeks and Riley will try to get to know his new players—many of them who will be as new to the Flash as he is. Then the season starts with a two-match road trip to Kansas City and Chicago before the home opener at the end of April. Last year a revamped Flash team opened in Seattle and Portland and never fully recovered from their wounds.
“You have to play them sometime,” Riley said. But he is confident in the roster mostly built by technical director Charlie Naimo, who Riley said will be, “a good confidant.”
“I’m honored to be picked. I don’t think we’re that far away.”
-Look for the Flash to bring in Dahlkemper’s central defense partner from outside the organization.
-McDonald, whose son will turn four next month, told me she has been in touch with Abby Wambach’s family and they have been very helpful in getting him set up with a local school as well as some babysitting.
-The Flash are almost certain to lose D’Angelo for the Olympics even though she appears to be running third in a two-woman race to be on the final squad. With alternates in the fold it seems like D’Angelo is the clear choice to travel to Brazil even if Stephanie Labbe maintains her place as No. 2 behind Erin McLeod.
-If you missed the NWSL schedule announcement, check out the full slate of matches here.
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