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World Cup Afterglow In Western New York: a Lot of Flash, a Little Magic, and a Big Heroes Welcome

Posted on July 21, 2011 by John Wingspread Howell

Abby Wambach got a heroes welcome during her return to Rochester.

The Women’s World Cup momentum swept like a tsunami through Western New York just three days following the emotionally draining, ultimately disappointing US defeat in the finals, by Cinderella Japan.

With the Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) match between the home team, Western New York Flash, and magicJack SC, half of the league’s 35 World Cup representatives, including six from the U.S., were represented in one arena. And the crowds came out to pay homage.

In a ceremony just prior to the game, Rochester native Abby Wambach–America’s newest national symbol– received the keys to the city of Rochester from the Mayor. At half time the Monroe County Executive added to the praise, with a proclamation of Abby Wambach Day.

While Wambach didn’t play, she did address the crowd at half-time with an emotional, triumphant speech, and promised a gold medal for the U.S. in next year’s London Olympics.

Although World Cup fever was largely responsible for the record crowd of 15,400, it was still an unprecedented crowd for women’s club soccer. Extra bleachers were brought in to the open end of the park, and standing room tickets were also sold. It was not only the largest crowd in the history of WPS, it was a record for the venue as well, bulging with 1,400 more than the listed capacity.

It was obvious the crowd came to honor the local hero, to celebrate with Wambach’s magicJack cohorts from Team USA such as Hope Solo, Megan Rapinoe, Becky Sauerbrunn and Shannon Boxx, and to cheer for the Flash’s own US hero, Alex Morgan, as well as the Flash’s international stars: Marta, Canadian captian Christine Sinclair, and Swedish star, Caroline Seger. But it can also be hoped that it wasn’t just that, that it was also the beginning of a new love affair with women’s soccer, and with a local team that has played in relative obscurity, despite the fact that they could very well be the world’s best women’s club side.  

But for those who did come to bask in the World Cup afterglow, there was much to enjoy, despite the absence of Solo, Sauerbrunn, and the Flash’s Maurine who had not yet rejoined their respective teams.

Christine Sinclair scored the first two Flash goals, and since returning from World Cup play has scored three of the last four.

A probable future US national teamer, magicJack’s Ella Masar evened the score in the 41st minute, but that would be all for the visiting team. Later in the second half McCall Zerboni tallied her fourth of the season on a header from the right side, making it 3-1, which would hold up as the final count.

Following on the heels of an ugly 2-0 victory in New Jersey versus Sky Blue FC the previous Sunday, the Flash seems to have found their groove again. This after a three game winless streak (0-2-1) leading up to and through the World Cup break.

The Flash, still missing team captain and Caroline Seger, who arrived directly from the airport after the pre-game festivities but did not dress, dominated the game with the exception of a rather typical momentary lapse on defense, when Masar was able to get past the WNY back line and steal a goal.

Despite not having an opportunity for the re-constituted team to get in synch, the Flash’s World Cup players blended in well enough, providing the spark that had been missing during their absence.

It was as if the internationals made the rest of the club better just by their presence. Since their team-mates’ return, players such as Beverly Goebel and Zerboni lifted their play to a level not seen when the “stars” were away. It was a good omen for a team that had fallen quickly from complete league domination to a distant second place in the absence of their World Cup colleagues.

Alex Morgan scored two key World Cup goals, but has a hard time getting into the lineup with the Western NY Flash.

And it was a good omen for the team and for the league, the way the fans turned out. The night’s attendance broke the previous league attendance record, a stated 14,600 in Los Angeles at the league’s inaugural match, in 2009. Unlike tonight’s number, however, that Los Angeles number was thought to be inflated by counting luxury box-holders who were required to buy the game in a package, but did not necessarily attend.

There was no chance that this number was inflated though. If anything, it was understated. It would have been difficult to pack another person into the park.

And so Joe Sahlen, the meat mogul who came to WPS out of nowhere and asked to move his W-League franchise into the big league, continues his role as savior of the league. His club, in the league’s smallest market has had two of the three largest gates in league history, and the two best gates since week one three years ago.

The only question is, will at least some of these people keep coming back when Wambach is not in town, and now that they’ve had their local version of the World Cup closing ceremony?

I think some of them will. If Twitter is any indication, people I have known to be uninterested in soccer and in women’s sports in general, became passionate fans during the World Cup. And it was interesting as many Western New Yorkers tweeted the praises of Alex Morgan as she scored twice in the last two World Cup games, but had to be told that Alex Morgan also plays for the home team. I think some of those people were in the crowd tonight and I think some of them will keep coming. Not 15,000, most likely, but even 5,000 would lead the league at this point, and that is not so unlikely.

Why shouldn’t they? Why shouldn’t anyone who likes sports and is loyal to the home teams make the hour-long drive to Rochester to see a team of superstars, who live and train in the Buffalo southtowns, and who are still the odds-on favorite to win the championship of the world’s best women’s league?

Sure, it would be nice to have Abby Wambach on the home side– and I hope Joe Sahlen is working every angle to negotiate a trade—but in the meantime, and despite her absence, we have Marta, the world’s best female player five years running (who in the words of play by play announcer Nick Mendola is not even the best player on this team). Why shouldn’t they when they have a team so good that internationals like Kim Bandau of Portugal, Maurine of Brazil, and even Alex Morgan, aren’t good enough to make the starting eleven?

And as for the team’s prospects on the pitch, the only real obstacle now is Philadelphia, who have beaten the Flash in two of three meetings this year. But the two victories came when the internationals were called up.

So if the Flash can fight their way back to the top of the standings by the end of the regular schedule, they will be guaranteed a BYE until the championship game, which they will host, and hopefully, will break another attendance record.

A final note: In the ironic facts department, after recent trades and acquisitions, there are now eight former Chicago Red Stars on the magicJack roster. Six of them start, and second string keeper Jillian Lloyden, who was Chicago’s number one last season, started this match. After magicJack subbed in Lydia Vandenberg, all eight former Red Stars were on the field at once, joining WNY’s defender Whitney Engen making a total of nine former Red Stars on the same field simultaneously. Since former Red Stars have cost the Flash a tie and a loss in the last minute or two of games in their three game winless streak, it could have been a bad omen. Though Ella Masar is one of the former Chicagoans, her goal was not enough to spoil the Flash’s re-set.

John Wingspread Howell is a novelist, writer (about sports and life) and entrepreneur originally from, and now back home again in Buffalo, New York.

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