If you asked anyone who follows the NWSL who their top four playoffs teams would be at any point in the season, there’s a slim-to-none chance Western New York Flash would be on their list. In fact, they probably would have been towards the bottom of the table- maybe even last place. The team most fans teased and turned into a joke over the past two seasons is now currently sitting comfortably at the top of the table, tied for first with the Chicago Red Stars.
In the NWSL’s inaugural season back in 2013, it initially looked like New York would be just as competitive as any other team. The East Coast team was named shield winners at the end of the regular season and made it all the way to the championship, only to fall to the Portland Thorns in a 2-0 loss. With the likes of U.S. Women’s National Team regulars Carli Lloyd and Abby Wambach, along with rising Australian international Sam Kerr, the Flash were very capable of being a threat to anyone who played against them. Fast forward to the end of the 2015 season: no Lloyd or Wambach, placed seventh out of nine, nine losses, and a goal differential of -10. Things hadn’t gone well for them since 2013, and it was only about to get worse from there.
Western New York traded away their 2015 allocations, Sydney Leroux and Whitney Engen, in the offseason. Jaelene Hinkle and Samantha Mewis, who were both 2015 draft picks, were given allocations due to their recent involvement with the national team post-World Cup. These players, unfortunately, aren’t the big names the Flash need, and they didn’t bother to sign any big internationals for the upcoming season.
In addition to these changes, the Flash parted ways with their head coach. This decision left the team coachless for not only the offseason, but also the 2016 college draft. Decisions in the draft were made by the rest of the coaching staff still with the organization, and they managed to steal University of Virginia forward Makenzy Doniak in the second round. Just a few weeks out from preseason, the club hired former Thorns head coach Paul Riley. Riley, who coached in Portland for two seasons before parting ways with the club, is no stranger to the East, having coached the Philadelphia Independence and New York Fury back in the WPS. Despite his impressive career, the 52-year-old has been known to make strange and questionable lineup decisions, as seen in his career with the Portland Thorns.
To everyone following the league, it looked as if Western New York wasn’t going to be much different from the team they were last season. It started out that way too, with the team losing three out of its five first games.s were still looking like old 1990s home videos, crowds were looking just as dismal as ever and wins weren’t coming as often as they should. Things started to turn around when the club took the whole league by surprise in their 5-2 victory against Sky Blue FC. The next weekend, they did it once again, shutting out the Boston Breakers 4-0. Maybe these shouldn’t have been so surprising - Sky Blue hasn’t been the best team in the league in awhile and the Breakers have had their struggles since day one. With the threats up front such as known goal-scorer Jessica McDonald paired with UCLA stars Taylor Smith and Samantha Mewis - as well as Canadian goalkeeper, Sabrina D’Angelo - it was only a matter of time.
What really took everyone by surprise was last weekend’s 1-0 win against the confident and successful expansion team Orlando Pride. Big stars such as Alex Morgan and Ashlyn Harris failed to lead the expansion team to another victory. Doniak, Western New York’s best pick of the draft, scored the game-winning goal. For the first time in a long time, the team was actually an offensive threat, forcing Harris to make saves left and right. With those three points, Western New York was able to take the top of the table - a clear surprise to everyone.
Riley has found the right mix
Although Paul Riley’s experiments in Portland didn’t go the way he wanted, he was one of the most successful coaches in the WPS. This season he’s managed to find the right players to put on the field and - albeit a little later than he would’ve liked - has turned a joke of a team into a playoff threat. The organization itself still has quite a bit of technical things to work out -s, crowds, etc. - but as long as Riley can keep bringing in the wins, that’s all that matters.