The Western New York Flash (11-5-6) entered Sunday trying to finish off a memorable season, one in which they were picked to finish in the lower half of the table, and win their first-ever National Women’s Soccer League Championship. The Flash were also looking to cap off a postseason run which saw them clinch a spot on the last day of the regular season and then upset the top-seeded Portland Thorns FC with a 4-3 win in the semifinals. Standing in the Flash’s way was the second-seeded Washington Spirit (13-6-3), who the Flash previously lost to and tied against in the regular season.
However, the path was cleared for Western New York to on their way to the franchise’s fourth title in its 8-year existence. In a match that saw the Flash without Head Coach Paul Riley on the sideline, two goals in the first 15 minutes of play, and goals scored in the first and last minutes of overtime, the Flash came away with a 3-2 win on penalty kicks.
With Riley in a suite after being shown a red card in the Flash’s semifinal match last Sunday, assistant Scott Vallow was serving as the acting head coach tonight, bringing the same intensity that Riley usually incorporates on the sideline. Vallow’s team started off in a similar manner to many other Flash matches this season, as the Flash were able to gain possession early and create a number of chance before the opposition could muster their first chance.
The opening frame didn’t need much time to get going, as WNY got the ball deep in Washington’s end in the 1’, and Samantha Mewis fed a crossing pass intended for Jessica McDonald that was intercepted before it could reach McDonald. A minute later, Mewis was able to cross the ball again towards the net, but no Flash player was around to capitalize. Also in the 2’, McCall Zerboni put a shot towards the net that was blocked by a Spirit defender. The Flash continued to pressure the Spirit, as Mewis fired off a shot in the 5’ that was dead center on net, but Kelsey Wys was right in position to make the save. WNY then got a corner kick in the 7’, where Abby Dahlkemper put it in the box and the ball was headed into the net, but the goal was waved off due to a foul.
The Spirit finally got going in the 9’, as Crystal Dunn received a pass over the Flash defense that she knocked down, and beat Sabrina D’Angelo after D’Angelo came out to play the ball. The 2015 NWSL MVP then caught up to the ball and put a shot that found the twine, giving the Spirit an early 1-0 lead. The Spirit would generate some more pressure after the goal, but the Flash were able to get the ball back. that’s when the birthday girl was able to tie the match. On a play that started with Lynn Williams picking up the ball around midfield, Williams stopped in the corner, letting the Spirit defenders cover McDonald in the box, before passing the ball to Mewis outside the box. Mewis switched feet and fired off a shot that found the lower right corner of the net, beating Wys and pulling the Flash even with the Spirit.
After a break in action due to an injury to Caprice Dydasco in the 16’, the Spirit went back on the offensive, creating a number chances, including a Estefania Banini shot that D’Angelo made the easy save on in the 21’. Other chances could have been created, but the Spirit had problems staying onside, as the Dunn was called for offside twice in a 3-minute span.
Continuing the back-and-forth style of the match, the Flash took possession again and created chances thanks to players like McDonald and MaKenzy Doniak. Play then went back the other way, as Washington took the ball down and Christine Nairn put a shot high of the net. The back-and-forth mentality with chances continued, as Nairn fired off another shot a few minutes later that D’Angelo saved, holding on to the ball to prevent any rebound chances. The same minute at 33’, Williams got a ball to Mewis that Mewis was not able to get a good piece of, mishitting it.
In the 36’, Dahlkemper put a free kick on net that Wys had to make the save on after the ball sailed over the traffic in front. Going back the other way Dunn got the ball near the sideline, shook off one of the two defenders on her, then passed the ball off to Ali Krieger, whose cross was knocked away.
As the first half entered 3 minutes of extra time, the Flash seemed to apply serious pressure once again. Controlling play offensively, Makenzy Doniak passed the ball to Williams, who would have had a quality chance had Megan Oyster not got in the way. Then, Williams, looking for her partner McDonald, sent a cross towards the net, but no one was able to capitalize.
Entering the half, both teams were matched pretty well, as Washington held the narrow lead in shots 6-4, and shots on goal 3-2. Vallow knew a change needed to be made to generate better play from his side, and into a 4-3-3 formation they went.
Opening up the 2nd half in the 46’, the Flash tried a trick play off a McDonald throw-in, as she threw short to Williams, who took the ball towards the box to create a chance. The Flash then created multiple chances in a short span, before Doniak was able to get in position for a shot. But Doniak, on an oft-used field, kicked up dirt instead of the ball, and the ball fluttered out of play.
Washington soon got a chance in the 50’, as Krieger fired a corner kick that barely missed the head of a jumping Whitney Church. Two minutes later, McDonald got the ball after a Spirit misplay, taking the ball to the corner before crossing the ball to Williams, who not in position to receive the pass. Later, in the 57’, the Flash got another corner kick that Dahlkemper drove low into traffic, with Wys somehow coming up with the ball in her arms before getting tangled up.
As more play began to occur in midfield, chances become that more important. From 61’ to 63’, Dunn fired off a shot wide, followed by two corner kicks from Christine Nairn, with both kicks being turned away. Finally, in the 66’, WNY got possession back and, off a Jaelene Hinkle corner kick, Doniak was able to get the ball and cross a ball off Williams’ head before bouncing to Wys.
The game then entered a lull, as chances became harder to come by. Multiple offside calls on the Spirit didn’t help their cause, while the Flash couldn’t get the ball near Wys. Taylor Smith came in for Doniak in the 79’ and provided a boost to WNY immediately, as Smith outworked her defender in the 81’ to earn a throw-in for McDonald. Then, in the 83’, Zerboni tackled Francisca Ordega, earning a yellow card but neutralizing a Washington rush downfield. Ordega was then involved in another play in the 88’, as she got tangled up with D’Angelo as a Krieger cross was knocked away. The play left D’Angelo needing to recover for a minute with the trainer, but she stayed in the game, showing off her warrior-like mentality.
With 4 minutes of extra time added on, both sides had more chances, including Hinkle sending a shot high, followed by Krieger firing a shot high the other way 2 minutes later. Smith then got the ball in time for a last chance effort, firing off a shot that was blocked right before time expired.
As the first overtime began, Dunn was able to put Washington back up almost immediately, sneaking in to the box and receiving a pass before beating a diving D’Angelo to the right post. Holding a 2-1 deficit, the Flash knew it was time to press, as Mewis fired off a shot outside the box in the 93’ that was on goal but just within reach for Wys, who made the big save. A minute later, Smith got the ball from McDonald, firing a shot that was handled by Wys again. D’Angelo then had to make, possibly, the save of the game in the 96’, as the Spirit recovered off a Dunn cross and sent a shot on net that D’Angelo had to lunge for. The Canadian keeper made the save and held on to prevent a rebound.
The Flash would get two pointblank chances after, as an Elizabeth Eddy cross barely missed an acrobatic attempt from Mewis in the 97’, and a Williams shot was deflected to Wys in the 101’. Then, in the 102’, McDonald got two throw-ins, with both almost being converted in the box, but Washington was able to maintain their lead.
As the first overtime ended and the second overtime began, the Flash’s sense of urgency picked up, as the Flash made numerous attempts to create scoring opportunities, while also making great defensive plays to keep them in the match. Most notable was a save by D’Angelo on Dunn in the 115’, followed by the Flash taking it the other way for some chances. D’Angelo made another save, this time on Diana Matheson in the 120’, to again keep the Flash in the match.
Finally, with only seconds of extra time remaining, McDonald was able to connect with the league MVP, Lynn Williams, who headed a ball past 2 defenders and Wys, tying the match up right before the final whistle was blown. With the match tied again, the Flash and Spirit moved on to the penalty kick shootout – the first ever in NWSL Championship history.
On the first kick, Dahlkemper sent a shot to the right, bouncing off Wys’ glove and in to the corner of the net. For the Spirit, Krieger sent a shot to the right of a left-diving D’Angelo who barely got a piece of it to make the save. Hinkle was next, and she sent another shot off Wys’ hand that found the back of the net. With her team down 2-0 in PK’s, Nairn went left when D’Angelo went right to give her team a slither of hope. McDonald then followed with a shot that sailed over the net, and Katie Stengel put a shot on net that was out of D’Angelo’s range, tying the PK’s at 2-2. However, Williams was able to trick a shot in to the right after Wys made a short move to the left, giving the Flash the lead before D’Angelo made a diving save on Tori Huster to make it 3-2. Mewis then put a shot on goal that Wys guessed right on, and made a diving save.
With the Flash up 3-2, Matheson had the chance to tie it. Sabrina D’Angelo had other intentions. The 23-year old keeper made the diving save on her fellow Canadian National Team teammate, sealing the fate of the match. As D’Angelo hit her knees in celebration, the rest of the team came rushing towards her, the final scene in a season with tons of memories for the Flash players, coaches, and fans.
With her incredible performance, topped off with five saves in 124+ minutes of play and three saves in the shootout, D’Angelo was awarded the 2016 NWSL Championship MVP. The Canadian ends a roller-coaster season with an Olympic bronze medal, a NWSL championship, and a championship MVP, and all of it coming after playing through a wrist injury in a match in May and missing most of June and July with the injury.
The Championship is the first NWSL Championship for the Flash, and their fourth overall, having won 3 championships in other leagues: 2010 (USL W-League), 2011 (WPS), and 2012 (WPSLE). The Flash organization has now won four titles in their eight years of existence.
The team will return to the Buffalo-Niagara International Airport at 4:30 p.m. ET tomorrow, October 10. Media and fans are invited to welcome the team off the plane.