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The Lowdown: How culture change led Flash to the top of NWSL

A wide array of reactions to Lynn Williams's 124th minute equalizer that sent the final to penalties. The Spirit player on the ground is Alyssa Kleiner. (photo copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

A wide array of reactions to Lynn Williams’s 124th minute equalizer that sent the final to penalties. The Spirit player on the ground is Alyssa Kleiner. (photo copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

Following two seasons of dull soccer and two off seasons shuttling players to other NWSL cities, it was time for a change in Western New York. Though the club when into a rebuilding phase after 2014, a process expedited for them when Abby Wambach elected not to play the 2015 season, something else was afoot.

There is nary a trace of any player, current or past, speaking out against the crumbling culture of an organization that could once be counted on to be relevant when the most important parts of the season approached. A bit of deeper examination has uncovered texts and other messages sent from remaining players to ones just traded. The main message was always something to the effect of, “You’re lucky to be getting out of here.”

Things began to change on December 22, 2015. The days before Christmas are usually quiet for NWSL, but that was the day Aaran Lines, citing his expanding family and a desire to help grow the Flash’s other business entities, stepped down as head coach after seven seasons and three championships.

Lines, the son-in-law of owner Joe Sahlen, remained prominent in the organization and technical director Charlie Naimo made it less of an issue to see the draft come and go without a coach on board. As it did, Lines was wooing Paul Riley, but the recently sacked Thorns coach had decided to take 2016 off from the pro ranks.

To use Riley’s word, Lines was relentless. “He just kept coming and coming.” Riley finally agreed to venture north to visit the Flash facility and discuss the job in a little more detail. On February 19, Paul Riley was announced as the Western New York Flash’s second head coach.
As Riley scanned his new roster he saw only one name that he had coached extensively: Jessica McDonald. Familiarity does not always equal comfort, and in this relationship, things were not great.

“The first phone call I made was to Jess. We needed to have a chat. As soon as we had the chat it was about 30 seconds and we were on with it,” Riley said. “We had a great conversation about what are we going to do this year and how are we going to do it.”

After that, Riley attacked the young nucleus of the club. “Abby (Dahlkemper) was the next phone call I made. Abby is a yapper so she spent about an hour and a half on the phone with me talking about everything. Can we do this better Paul? Can we do that better? Then I talked to Sam Mewis and I just listened. Another hour. It was just a great opportunity to hear them out.”

{MORE: Three thoughts on the Flash’s 2016 NWSL Championship}

Riley tends to be more revealing than most and when he said, “It wasn’t a happy place the locker room last year,” it was one of the first times anyone has ventured to put that on the record. “What happens is when there’s only one guy in charge for all this amount of time, you probably don’t realize.”

That person is Lines and the new dynamic certainly could have been awkward. Here was Riley, taking over for Lines as head coach, having to ask his predecessor for the authority to make certain changes. Lines though, was receptive to nearly every request.

“There were a couple of times when he had to smack me on the back of the neck with a fork,” Riley deadpanned. “but most of it was pretty straight forward. When I came in I sat down with Aaran and I said I think we need to do this X, Y, and Z and he said ‘All right if you think it’s going to help we’ll do it.’”

Bus rides. Meals. Strength and conditioning sessions. With input from the players, Riley worked with management to upgrade as many parts of the Flash as possible.

“There was a laundry list of things that we felt would be important for the environment. Having lived it in Portland where we had access to everything I think I was able to maybe parlay some of the things we did in Portland and bring them to the club. I would say for (lack of) a better word modernize the club a little bit, just bring it up to speed.

“Ownership has been great with backing us up. It’s cost them a little bit more money in doing that, making sure the players are taken care of. That little extra mile makes a huge impact.”

No one could have known it at the time, but without having so much as run a single training session, Paul Riley had laid the groundwork for a championship.

Paul Riley greets his team to celebrate after watching the NWSL Championship from a radio booth due to a suspension (photo copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

Paul Riley greets his team to celebrate after watching the NWSL Championship from a radio booth due to a suspension (photo copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

charting a course for the season

Once the phone calls and behind the scenes matters were dealt with, it came time to meet the players and get preseason started. In Portland, Riley took over a side that had won the NWSL Championship. Simply put there was no place go but down. In Western New York he was starting where things ended up in Portland—on the outside looking in. After mulling it over, he decided to strip away all expectations.

“Any time you get hired as a coach you look at the squad that you’ve got and you’ve got to make a decision. Is it all about results or is it all about development?” Riley said. “I took the thing on this occasion and said it’s all about development. What we’re going to do is forget the results, put them in the background and work on the fact that each player can do a little bit more each day to get better. That’s how we approached it.”

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Riley and his assistant Scott Vallow decided not to set team goals. Playoffs and championships were never mentioned even, according to Riley, after beating the Thorns to secure their place in the final. Instead of using results as a carrot, Riley decided to play the underdog card. And he found it easy.

“You guys (the media) handed us the underdog card seven months ago so we just played to that the whole way through. I think it’s helped us.”

making it all work

The season began in Kansas City where the Flash watched FC Kansas City get honored for their second consecutive NWSL Championship. But they were a team in transition and put out an interesting formation with three center backs in a 3-5-2. Sound familiar? The Flash earned a fortuitous penalty which Jaelene Hinkle converted and got lucky again when they gave one up late and Heather O’Reilly hit the post in stoppage time.

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“I go back to two results,” Riley said. “One was opening day when we escaped with three points in Kansas.”

The other one was July 1 against the Chicago Red Stars when Lianne Sanderson and Lynn Williams scored in a 2-0 victory. “I felt at that time Chicago was the most influential, deep, talented roster in the league. Chicago is a very, very good side.

“That was the moment when I felt maybe we’ve got a shot.”

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The only minor hiccup on that night was when the team returned to Buffalo and Mewis accidentally uttered the word that shall not be used around the Flash. “I remember Sam Mewis got off the bus and said, ‘Do you actually think we’ve got a shot at the playoffs?’ I said (gasping). She was like ‘I didn’t mean to say the word.’ I said let’s just keep working and we’ll be okay.”

Keep working they did. Through an injury to goalkeeper Sabrina D’Angelo—she played through one match with a broken wrist—and a trade for Katelyn Rowland to take her place, the departures of internationals Lady Andrade, Halimatu Ayinde, and Jeon Ga Eul, and the arrivals of Sanderson and McCall Zerboni, the Flash just kept getting results.

“Getting McCall midseason and Lianne midseason helped the locker room too,” Riley said. “It gave us a bit more experience especially with the Olympic players about to go away. It’s been an up and down season for quite a few of them. Jae Hinkle didn’t make the World Cup squad. From a mental capacity we had to get Jae back on the card again. Sam went away and she didn’t play and Sam came back and she was feeling a little bit sorry. We had to get her back in the locker room. Alanna (Kennedy) missed a penalty in the World Cup.”

Even a late-season stretch of seven matches without a win did not sink them, mostly because the Flash managed to draw five of the seven. In one match they were down 3-1 in Houston and rallied with two late goals. The equalizer? A Jess McDonald pass in stoppage time that Williams finished in the North End goal at BBVA Compass Stadium. Sound familiar?

“This was a place we got last minute last time,” Riley recalled after Sunday’s win. “We were 3-1 down here, we came back. Abby hit a 60-yard ball down the field, Jess headed it down, Lynn put it in the back of the net. Same goal, same place almost exactly where she put this one.

“No matter what’s happened the group’s stuck together like glue. I don’t think I’ve enjoyed practice ever in my career, men or women, this year has just been one of those things every day you want to go to practice. Whether it’s short, long, hard, different, whatever it is, it’s been a lot of fun for sure.”

Teammates rush to mob Sabrina D'Angelo after her third PK save gave the Flash the 2016 NWSL Championship (photo copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

Teammates rush to mob Sabrina D’Angelo after her third PK save gave the Flash the 2016 NWSL Championship (photo copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

even ifs, not what ifs

By the time Sunday’s final rolled around, the Flash were spent. It was their sixth consecutive away match and the previous eight days had seen them play a grueling, 120 minutes in Portland, fly across the country, and then fly to Houston to prepare for the NWSL Championship. It all took its toll in the form of a performance that every Flash player we spoke to acknowledged was substandard.

“The previous week and the previous game really took a lot out of us,” captain Abby Erceg admitted. “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 Spirit lined up in a 3-5-2 similar to what FC Kansas City had done in the first match and though it may have sacrificed some of their own attack, the formation kept the Flash off balance. “They caught us by surprise a little bit,” Riley said. “We didn’t expect it. It was a bold move by Jimmy (Gabarra.)”

The Flash made some halftime adjustments to settle the match down, but according to Riley, “We matched up better in the second half but we still just didn’t play that great. Our energy level was a little bit lower than normal. That affects our press. When our press gets affected, everything else gets affected.”

{RELATED: Three reasons the Washington Spirit’s season ended in heartache}

But the thing that defined the 2016 Flash was that they didn’t worry about what happened when things didn’t go well. They focused on how they could succeed even if things didn’t go well.

“We’re not a club of what if–what if we don’t score, what if we don’t press well today. We’re more of a club of even ifs—even if the press doesn’t work today we’ll do this. Even if we don’t score today, Jess can do that for us. Even if we don’t play well today we can do this.”

That mentality was on full display as Williams leveled the match in the 4th minute of extra time. A few minutes later it was on display again when they prevailed in penalties even after McDonald missed the frame to give back the early advantage; and even after Mewis was saved on the would-be clincher.

This one is the best,” Zerboni said when asked to discuss her three championships with the Flash, “because literally everyone on this team is such a good person. We all love each other so much we’re really like friends. I’ve never been on a team where every single person from number 20 to number 1 like we really love each other so much and we would do anything for each other. I think that’s what carried through tonight.”

“I think we’ve built our season,” Riley said, “on even ifs and not what ifs.”


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