HOUSTON, TX. — Sunday’s NWSL Championship will feature the latest coaching battle between Jim Gabarra and Paul Riley. Gabarra has coached every season in all three women’s pro leagues and Riley is in his fifth season covering two leagues. But Riley won’t actually be on the sideline Sunday. He was sent off in the Flash’s semifinal victory over the Thorns and will be banned from having contact with his team from the time they arrive at the stadium until the end of the match.
Enter Scott Vallow. The 39-year-old former goalkeeper and goalkeeper coach is now acting as Riley’s first assistant and the sideline will be his on Sunday. It won’t be the first time Vallow has run the team this season. Of course he was left to run the show for more than an hour after the red card, but Riley was also suspended twice during the regular season.
“Throughout the season we try to give the players a lot of experience so when we call on them later on this season it’s not the first time they’ve stepped on the field,” Vallow said. “I’ve been lucky enough to have some experience on the bench as the main voice a few times this year and if I have to do it again this weekend, I’ll do it.”
Once upon a time, Vallow was an MLS keeper playing parts of four seasons with the Dallas Burn (now FC Dallas) and Colorado Rapids. He wound up becoming a fixture with the Rochester Rhinos where one of his teammates was Aaran Lines. When Lines became the coach of the Flash and the club was preparing to make the jump to WPS, Vallow gave up the final year of his Rhinos contract to become an assistant coach.
“2011 was a fun year for me,” he said. “It was my first year as a coach. To be able to go straight from playing into coaching and win a championship was pretty fun. I thought that’s just what you do is go and win championships.”
That championship came at the expense of Riley who was then in charge of the Philadelphia Independence. A year later, WPS was gone but the Lines/Vallow Flash won again, this time in WPSL Elite. In the semifinal, they beat the Riley-coached New York Fury.
“2013 we were able to make it to another final [losing to the Thorns]. It’s been a good run for the organization. Hopefully we can cap it off with a trophy this weekend.”
It should be noted, though likely mostly coincidental, that the last two seasons when the Flash missed the playoffs are the two seasons when Vallow was not with the organization. He began dating McCall Zerboni and decided to step away from the Flash and became head coach of the Rhinos in 2014. When Zerboni was traded to the Thorns in 2015 they made the decision to go together and Riley hired Vallow to join the staff.
As a former goalkeeper, Vallow said that he and Riley, a former forward, play well off each other. ”We have an interesting philosophy of coaching the front line with Paul being a forward and myself being a goalkeeper so we have both ends of the spectrum covered there.”
Prior to the NWSL Championship, Vallow and Riley will do what they usually do before matches. “We’ll talk about game plan, strategy, tactics all that, make sure we’re on the same page, and then go out and coach the game.
“Nothing changes. It’s just a different voice from the sideline if needed. My messaging is not any different than Paul’s. It’s not like we’re going to change formations or do something completely drastic. The players know what they need to do. The building blocks have been in place since day one. Now it’s just a matter of putting them all into a performance on the weekend.”
In terms of that voice, Vallow said he is the one who brings more outward passion while Riley—often shown on television and YouTube kneeling while intently watching the play—is more of the analytical one. He’ll try, he said, to be more of a blend of the two on Sunday.
“Paul and I have good balance,” Vallow said. “That’s what makes us work.”
As far as handling the ever-critical substitutions, Vallow said: “We kind of see how the game’s going. We feel it out and see where we need improvement. The first team’s out there pretty much for as long as they can and then we start making adjustments from there. We’ve had some standard changes over the last month or so. Those kind of all play into factor.”
Vallow cuts a stoic figure and speaks with authority, but beneath it lies a sharp sense of humor. Asked what would be different between him and Riley on the sideline he quipped: “For one thing, I won’t be wearing a suit.”
Then there was the May 21 game, Vallow’s first in charge of the bench. In a game they would eventually win, 5-2 over Sky Blue FC, the Flash went into halftime on a comfortable 4-0 lead. After searching for a few words to say to the team Vallow finally opened with: “First of all, Paul has been fired.”
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