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Three things about the Flash’s 2016 NWSL Championship

Western New York Flash celebrate their NWSL Championship win (photo by Patricia GGiobetti for The Equalizer)

Western New York Flash celebrate their NWSL Championship win (photo by Patricia GGiobetti for The Equalizer)

HOUSTON, TX. — Here are three things of note about the Western New York Flash’s penalty kick shootout win over the Washington Spirit on Sunday night in the 2016 NWSL Championship.

winning with less than their best

The NWSL Championship opened with the Spirit in a formation they had not played all season. Jim Gabarra deployed three center backs—Megan Oyster, Whitney Church, and Shelina Zadorsky—while pushing Ali Krieger and Caprice Dydasco up as wingers. The move paid early dividends as the Spirit cycled the ball around the flanks and put their numerical midfield advantage to good use.

“Hats off to Washington, I thought they were the better team, certainly in the first half,” Riley said. “They made a huge change tactically before the game which threw us off a little bit.”

At halftime—which the suspended Riley wasn’t a part of—the Flash made a tactical change of their own by bringing Makenzy Doniak higher and attempting to insert their own fullbacks into the attack more. The switch helped level off the play but still the Flash rarely had looks at goal through the second half and much of extra time.

“Usually in the midfield we’re a little bit cleaner on the ball and we turned the ball over quite a bit in the game,” Riley said. “But we just worked our socks off in there. The effort was unbelievable. We were very calm which is unusual for a young team.”

{MORE: D’Angelo’s MVP performance was for her grandfather}

Captain Abby Erceg conceded that the frantic match in Portland last week coupled with long flights to and from Portland and then to Houston took its toll as well.

“The previous week and the previous game really took a lot out of us,” Erceg, who joined Ali Riley as New Zealand internationals to win domestic professional champions in the United States, said. “It was a tough game against Portland. They really took it to us. Obviously 120 minutes of football is not normal and traveling across the country as well. I think it all added up. We were tired going into the game, more so than we thought we would be.”

The outside backs also did an admirable job of containing Spirit attackers, particularly Jaelene Hinkle on Crystal Dunn. Though Dunn scored twice and Hinkle often required help, her tenacious play prevented Dunn from opening up the match in the first half.

“It was just a gutsy performance,” Riley said. “I think that game summed up the season for us. Even at 2-1, they had a couple of chances, but I don’t think we thought for a second we were out of it.”

Lynn Williams scored on a header?

Lynn Williams scores on a header to send the NWSL Championship match to penalty kicks (photo by Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

Lynn Williams scores on a header to send the NWSL Championship match to penalty kicks (photo by Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

When Paul Riley arrived at BBVA Compass Stadium on Sunday he had to separate from his team until after the match due to a suspension stemming from a red card in the semifinal a week earlier. From a box between the bowls the Flash was watching his team warm up when he saw a ball coming into Lynn Williams. It looked like a header.

“It looked like she’s going to head the ball and she stuck her leg out and volleyed it,” Riley said. “Something that she’s not very good at is heading the ball and we’ve worked with her a lot in practice on,” he added, referencing what may now be the only weakness in Williams’s game.

Sure enough, three hours later with the Flash season about to end in disappointment, Jessica McDonald floated a ball into the box aimed at Williams. With Spirit defenders in her midst and keeper Kelsey Wys racing out to inject herself into the play, Williams had only one option—shooting it with her head.

“Weird things have happened the last few weeks,” Riley said. “I think if that doesn’t sum our season up. It was a season of almost miracles.”

Williams’s header was the third goal she scored during the playoffs, all in extra time, and all in very different forms. Her goals against the Thorns were a well-placed soft ball and a one-time rocket. The header may have been the least likely, but it was not even the last.

The two reactions to scoring from Williams were, “Holy crap, I scored,” and “Let’s go get another one.” When she realized there was barely enough time for the Spirit to even restart play, focus turned to penalty kicks. Williams was the fourth shooter.

“I know Lynn’s PK,” Riley said. “It scared the (bleep) out of me but she always scored in practice. She’ll tell you I laugh every time she does it.”

The technique was to stand close to the ball and with a quick start, take a gentle touch that caught Wys off guard.

“When I was little I just used to hit the ball really hard and it would sail over,” Williams said. “I think that’s just a way to calm myself down.”

Three goals in two games, all in extra time. In between she was called into the national team and was named NWSL MVP and to the Best XI.

“I have no words at this point.”

2015 draft is the new standard

It was clear even last season that the Flash’s 2015 draft class was something special. Having hoarded picks for the year they wound up with four of the top seven selections. They used them on Abby Dahlkemper (No. 3), Sam Mewis (No. 4), Williams (No. 6) and Hinkle (No. 7).

Less than two years later, the strike rate is very clearly 100%. Mewis was an Olympic alternate and Hinkle was among the last players cut. Next week, Dahlkemper and Williams will test their skills in Jill Ellis’s national team environment and, if things go well, win their first caps against Switzerland.

“I saw (Mewis) at the beginning of my tenure,” Ellis said during a halftime chat with assembled media. “I said ‘Sam you need a year in the league to mature and see where you’re at.’”

Riley, who was not with the organization for that draft and in fact was part of the Thorns club that dealt the 7th pick to the Flash. Sunday, basking in his championship, he said the youth on the Flash will only get better.

“We’ll get better, there’s no two ways about it. Across the board they’re young, they’re at the start of their careers. This experience will be great for them. Whether we won or lost to be honest with you, the experience would have been great for them.”

Of course the 1st round was not the only productive round of the 2015 draft for the Flash. In the 3rd round, with the 21st pick, they snapped up a goalkeeper from South Carolina: Sabrina D’Angelo.

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