Analysis. History. Perspective.

Sports Then and Now

Western New York Flash Claim the WPS Championship

Posted on August 28, 2011 by John Wingspread Howell

The Western New York Flash completed their first season with a league championship.

What we’ve been taking liberties to say about the Western New York Flash of Women’s Professional Soccer, we can now say with authority. We have, here in Buffalo, Rochester and Western New York, the absolute world’s best women’s club soccer team.

The Flash defeated last year’s runner up, the Philadelphia Independence, on penalty kicks after finishing regulation and two overtime periods tied at 1-1. It was a hard fought match.

Independence Coach Paul Riley showed why he won the league’s Coach of the Year award two consecutive years. Philadelphia, outgunned in the individual talent department, stayed in the match by out coaching the home team and regular season champions.

There was only one shot each in the first half, which was played almost entirely in the midfield. Throughout most of the match Philly was successful in disrupting Flash passing, especially in the offensive third of the pitch.

Things opened up midway through the second half with each club getting an occasional shot. As time went on the Flash finally began to break through with their typical attack of long passes to their speedy forwards , and after some near misses by Christine Sinclair and Alex Morgan, Marta hit Sinclair deep in Philadelphia territory in the 61st minute with a long high-arching pass which Sinclair pounded into the right side of the net from twenty yards out.

That seemed to let the air out of Philadelphia for most of the rest of the match, but the Flash started playing a little carelessly and with less than two minutes remaining Philly took advantage. Amy Rodgiguez knocked a rebound past Flash keeper Ashlyn Harris, tying the match at one.

It was a stoppable ball, and Harris, who in this writer’s opinion was not worthy of the Coast Guard Keeper of the Year award she was given, showed her vulnerability in glaring fashion on that play.

But, after 30 minutes of even play, Harris had an opportunity to redeem herself in the shootout. After both teams had gone two rounds matching goals with no stops, Harris guess correctly and leapt into the trajectory of Laura del Rio’s shot, knocking it wide to the right, ending the match, clinching the win, and giving Western New York Fans an opportunity to cheer for “Wide Right” for a change.

After the match, WPS Commissioner Anne-Marie Eileraas told this writer, in an exclusive interview, that Western New York has been “a fantastic boost to the league. They approached us, they were ready to run, and did a fantastic job of putting their organization together,” she continued, “and it’s been great for the league.”

It certainly has. Saturday’s attendance of 10,461, while no where near a WNY attendance record, is a new record for a WPS Championship game, at about 4,000 more than the previous record. That means that the Flash have hosted three of the six best attended matches in WPS history. Though starting slow, the Flash also finished the regular season with the best average attendance as well as the best record. And the only reason the championship match didn’t sell out was because Abby Wambach wasn’t playing.

Wambach seems to add at least 3,000 to the gate whenever she appears on the pitch, prompting my question to Flash owner Joe Sahlen. When asked if he would make an effort to bring Abby home to play for his club, Sahlen smiled and said he would take any such opportunity.

When asked if he had any plans to play at least a portion of next year’s schedule in Buffalo, Sahlen replied, “I never say never about anything, but I don’t see it happening.” When asked if he sees any long term possibility of playing a split schedule including Buffalo, Sahlen again said, “Like I said, I never say never, but just about.”

While this writer has been campaigning hard for the Flash to have more than a training and administrative presence in Buffalo, it is hard to look around at the beautiful new Sahlen’s Stadium with a view of the Rochester skyline through the open end of the park, and expect the club to play in lesser and much smaller accommodations such as All High Stadium, even if they might succeed in getting Buffalo Public Schools’ cooperation.

Perhaps it’s only fair that since Rochester drives West in great numbers to support the Bills, Buffalo should be asked to reverse the trip for the Flash. Just as the Bills hold training camp in Rochester, the Flash lives and trains throughout the season in Buffalo, Sahlen’s is a Buffalo company and Joe Sahlen is a Buffalo guy. And to be completely honest, though I hate to admit it, I have a hard time imagining Buffalo filling All-High Stadium for women’s soccer even though it is less than half the size of Sahlen’s Stadium. And again, though I hate to admit it, I’m afraid most people east of Batavia won’t even know or care they have champions among them.

So I think I’ve made my peace with the matter. Rochester is more of a soccer town. They have taken notice of the Flash and over the season have come out in greater numbers to make them the strongest and best attended franchise in a league that is still tottering on the edge of extinction.

It seems that the momentum of the World Cup and the success of the Flash has given the league at least one more year of life, and we can only hope that the post World Cup increase in attendance seen across the league will continue the trend into next season and beyond. If all WPS clubs can average around 5,000 or better per match, the league should be sustainable. If attendance declines, one more season might be it.

Post Game Interview Notes

Flash Head Coach Aaran Lines about Christine Sinclair (Championship Game MVP): “I gave my World Cup players the option of taking five days off to rest and recharge their batteries if they needed to, after the World Cup. Most of them took advantage of that. But Christine was back as soon as Canada (her team) was eliminated. She scored a goal in her first game back, and that made all the difference for us to win the regular season title. She’s selfless, humble, and a fierce competitor, always putting the cause above herself. I can’t say enough.”

Flash Head Coach Aaran Lines about Goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris: “It’s been great for her to have eighteen games as a starter. I don’t know anyone who is a more determined competitor than she is.”

Flash Head Coach Aaran Lines about losing Veronica Boquete (League MVP) to Philadelphia: “I guess I didn’t pay enough attention to the negotiation process. I just assumed she would sign with us (Boquete was a member of the 2010 Buffalo Flash W-League Champions), but we lost her. That really hurt. But then we went out and signed the world’s best player. Not too bad of an exchange, I’d say.”

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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