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Sports Then and Now

WNY Flash Claim WPS Regular Season Title

Posted on August 15, 2011 by John Wingspread Howell

The WNY Flash have claimed the WPS regular season title and will host the championship game on August 27th.

Pundits have been saying it all season: on paper Western New York Flash is the world’s best women’s club soccer side, bar none. Sunday evening, the Flash earned the honor for now, by taking the regular season championship of the world’s best women’s league, defeating The Atlanta Beat 2-0 in front of more than 5,000 fans on a rainy night in Sahlen’s Stadium.

Last place Atlanta came to play, however, containing a legendary front line to two goals while frustrating four times as many good attempts. The Flash will have to play better to win the championship match when they next take the pitch, at home, on August 27th.

Despite beating each WPS club at least once, and losing only to Philadelphia, it would be foolish for anyone to assume the Flash will waltz to the overall championship.

By virtue of winning the regular season championship, the Flash will “enjoy” a quirk of the WPS playoff format—a double bye and a guaranteed appearance in the championship match, with home field advantage. So while the Flash get a two week break, their opponents will have played one or two elimination games. As the opposition get sharper, the Flash will have to work hard to stay sharp and focused.

That is especially challenging since the Flash’s current starting lineup still hasn’t had an opportunity to gel completely, especially on the front line. Their starting front line at the close of the season is the holy trinity of Women’s soccer today: Brazilian phenom Marta on the left, Canada’s best, Christine Sinclair, the league leader in goals and assists coming into the final week, at center, and the newest United States weapon, Alex Morgan on the right.

No other front line in the world, including national teams, can match this one, and while World Cup preparation and play prevented them from being together consistently for their club team, since the Cup they have started to get their rhythm.

The operative term is started. Perhaps no WPS club suffered more from the disruption of the World Cup than the Flash. While some or all of the eight internationals on the Flash roster were out of the lineup, the club suffered both of its two defeats and two of its three draws.

What’s worse, those two defeats were both to Philadelphia, who finished in second place.

There is no doubt that Philadelphia is a good club. And since they sent few players to the World Cup, they were close to full strength when they beat the Flash in two of three matches. But the Flash should not have lost both matches, if even one.

While their front line hasn’t had the opportunity to click the way a line would normally click at this point in the season, that simply means the Flash offense isn’t as productive as it might be. It’s greatest vulnerability this season has been its defense.

With the arsenal at the Flash’s disposal, defense isn’t as crucial as it is with a less powerful team, but even the best teams depend on defense to get them through dry spells, injuries, call-up’s and star-crossed games when the ball never drops right.

Considering the talent on the back line, it is disappointing that there have been a few momentary but fatal lapses, when opponents have been allowed in too close and have cashed most of those checks.

Much of the blame goes to the back line, but keeper Ashlyn Harris has also been inconsistent. She’s played some impressive games, made brilliant saves at times, but despite the club’s dominant field play, she only has five clean sheets. Despite playing for the highest scoring club in WPS history, that’s only five shut-outs in eighteen matches.

Harris has led the league most of the season in goals allowed, but I put her in the same category as Karina LeBlanc of Marta’s original WPS club, the now defunct LA Sol. In 2009, LeBlanc led the league in goals allowed but her offense led the league in goals scored. Under different circumstances, LeBlanc was unable to maintain those statistics, and in fact is no longer in the league.

I think Marta, Sinclair, Morgan and company are making Harris look better than she is. Her bursts of brilliance are a hint to her potential, but her lapses betray her flaws. While she is likely to win the Coast Guard WPS Keeper of the Year award, she does not deserve it. Her goals allowed stats are not so impressive when compared to her number of saves.

Harris becomes an especially glaring flaw in the Flash’s defense when one considers the fact that U.S. national team keeper Hope Solo was still available when Harris was signed. And she remained available until very late in the off-season.

It appears that club owner Joe Sahlen, who was in hot pursuit of Marta, was convinced that if he had Marta he could live without Hope. I hope this will not prove to be the Flash’s undoing.

And Philadelphia is not the only threat. magicJack actually defeated Philly in the season finale, despite resting their stars.

Unable to move up from third place, magicJack played their second team in order to be ready for the first round of playoffs, on their home pitch, on Wednesday the 17th, versus Boston who clinched the final spot with a win over New Jersey. In spite of this, Philly, who could have finished first with a Flash loss, was unable to claim the opportunity. magicJack has been playing very well since the World Cup, despite the soap opera between their owner and the league (see below), and despite their two-a-week schedule for the past several weeks.

Nothing would be better for the league than a final match between WNY and magicJack, bringing hometown hero Abby Wambach to fill the stands yet again. There’s little doubt that the Flash’s current league record attendance of 15,404 would be broken should that match-up occur.

But in order for the home team to win, they will have to tighten up defense, tune up their front line, and find a way to keep everyone sharp and focused for two weeks of down time.

And around the league… Go back (magic)Jack! Do it again! And again… Will WPS be there, Next Season?

To add even more intrigue to that potential magicJack/Flash championship match, is the fact that WPS plans to take the franchise back from renegade owner Dan Borislow after the season is over. Borislow, the owner of the phone company for which the franchise was renamed, is suing WPS in Florida court (formerly the Washington Freedom, his team now plays in Boca Raton) to prevent the seizure.

WPS contends (in a recent press release) that Borislow has not complied with league regulations and has “abused his players,” and that the mechanism for revoking his franchise is air tight in his ownership contract. They also contend that Florida has no jurisdiction in the matter, since WPS is headquartered in San Francisco.

Among other issues, is the fact that Borislow refuses to pay for anything other than player salaries and transportation costs. The team has no website, no official coach (Wambach has been filling the role). NPR reports that at a recent road game in Boston, magicJack players had to borrow ankle tape—and the services of the Boston trainer, since trainers and tape are just two of the many other things Borislow refuses to buy.

It will be interesting to see how this soap opera plays out. It is unfortunate, given the league’s surging post-World Cup attendance and an accompanying surge in fan interest, that league stability is again called into question.

After losing three original franchises in little more than a year (Los Angeles, St. Louis and Chicago), the arrival of Joe Sahlen and his Flash franchise saved the 2011 season. Since the league has indicated in the past that at least six clubs are needed to have a credible season, there is great concern for the future of the league if Borislow’s legal challenges fail and another owner for the magicJack/Freedom franchise is not found.

This is even more ironic since seven of the U.S. national stars wear the magicJack colors, including the aforementioned Solo and Wambach as well as Megan Rapinoe.

On the positive side, should the league find a way to continue without magicJack, the demise of the franchise would open the door for Wambach to come home to live, not just to visit, and would likely ensure that Western New York would not only play at a level above the rest, but would play in front of a crowd at one or two levels above the rest.

Regardless of magicJack’s future, I’m guessing Joe Sahlen and the league will find a way to get Abby back home one way or another.

It is hoped that some person or group will be able to buy the franchise and return it to Washington where a faithful fan base remains, pining for their lost Freedom. In fact, there was a Washington Freedom club team before the previous major women’s league: WUSA. The Washington franchise played as the Freedom in the WUSA, and between the WUSA and WPS they continued to play, with much of the WUSA roster intact, in the W-League, then joined WPS. The league should do everything it can to return them to their proper home.

Another worthy alternative would be to resurrect the Chicago Red Stars with the current magicJack roster. When the Red Stars suspended operations for the 2011 season, they made it clear they were not shutting down just yet, simply suspending.

In the meantime, they put a roster together and competed in the Women’s Premier Soccer League, losing in the finals. When we asked Red Stars officials if this should be seen as an indication of their plans to return to WPS they did not comment directly but indicated that the option was still in play. Whether or not they take over the magicJack franchise, let’s hope Chicago comes back as well. They have a class organization and a strong, though smaller than hoped-for, fan base.

If nothing else, we can be guaranteed more drama once the season is over, as Red Stars decide their WPS fate and the not-so-magic Jack issue is resolved.

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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