When the Western New York Flash hits the pitch at Harvard Stadium in Boston on Sunday, there will be thick fog on the field. This is not a weather forecast, but a description of the enigmatic cloud that continues to enshroud the Women's Professional Soccer's best team on paper.
The expansion Flash has seven starters from last year's league champions, the now defunct FC Gold Pride of the Bay Area. The seven former Bay Area girls are highlighted by the consensus best female footballer in the world, Brazilian icon Marta, though she will not be in Boston for the opener.
The other four starters are headlined by Caroline Seger, a Swedish international who was the most valuable player of the league's runner-up last season, Philadelphia Independence, and the WPS No. 1 draft pick, Alex Morgan.
So why the cloud? The Flash enters the world's most elite women's league as a double enigma. Team offices and training facilities are in Metro Buffalo, where the team's owner, Joe Sahlen lives, and where the players are also housed. But the club is playing all of its games in Rochester.
The club's use of Western New York as its regional tag may fit Rochester geographically but Rochesterians seldom refer to their metro area as part of Western New York.
In Buffalo media you will hear the term "Western New York" used interchangeably with "Buffalo Niagara" in description of the region. In Rochester you will hear the term "Genessee Valley" at times, but media references to the Rochester area seldom use "Western New York."
So we have a club that is owned, based, and housed in Buffalo, but plays in Rochester. A Flash press release announced Marta's imminent arrival "in Buffalo," yet Marta will not play in Buffalo. And that makes for a very cloudy identity, a nebulous brand.
We have elaborated on the Rochester vs. Buffalo issue at great length in the past, but in summary, it is a major slap on Buffalo that the club's initial promises to play a split home schedule in Buffalo and Rochester was not kept.
While Rochester fans are accustomed to driving to Buffalo for Bills and Sabres games, Buffalonians seldom travel to Rochester for anything.
Flash management says their attempts to find an appropriate venue in Buffalo but there is no evidence that they tried very hard. For the money that was spent to rename Rhinos Stadium after Joe Sahlen, a Buffalo venue could have been upgraded to fit WPS criteria.
Not only is there concern about the geographical disjointedness of the club but there is also concern that the newly named Sahlen Stadium will swallow up the club and suck any energy out of the crowd.
This is certainly the case in other WPS venues built to scale for men's soccer. The 14,000 seat Rochester stadium is more than twice the optimal size for WPS.
Experience shows that venues of 4-7,000 seats are sized right for WPS at this point in its development, and the fan experience is better, and fan involvement is much greater, in a stadium that doesn't look and feel empty.
There is also a publicity fog engulfing the club. The local media has not noticed the Flash in Buffalo and has barely noticed them in Rochester.
A Google search of the Flash brought up one media reference to the club on the first page, that was not a Bleacher Report or Sports Then & Now article written by this author.
A thorough reading of the Buffalo News for the past several months has yielded only two short articles about the Flash. We have been unable to find any mention of the club on television in either market, with the exception of the team's launch announcement in November.
Joe Sahlen claims that soccer "barely has a pulse" in Buffalo, and asserts that Rochester has a strong soccer tradition. Yes and no. Buffalo had two indoor soccer franchises in the 80's and 90's that drew attendances comparable to current MLS crowds.
Rochester has a strong tradition of men's soccer, with the Lancers of the NASL and the minor league Rhinos currently, but there is no indication that women's soccer will draw any better here than it did in other men's soccer hotbeds such as St. Louis, Chicago, or Los Angeles, where WPS franchises folded.
So there is a foggy regional identity for the team and a foggy picture of how well Rochester will support women's soccer, and a foggy media presence. There is also the fog of unanswered questions about Buffalo.
What if Sahlen had done whatever it took to find or create a venue in Buffalo? In a city that has no professional soccer, would soccer people have come out to see the world's best women?
We don't know, but at least there would have been no competition with a popular men's team, as is the case in Rochester.
There is also the fog of how the Flash will play as a team. All of their pre-season games were played against college teams at Flash headquarters, Sahlen's Sports Park in the Buffalo suburb of Elma, N.Y.
They are yet to play a road game and are yet to play against another professional club at any level. How will they perform against Boston, who won their first match impressively, defeating Atlanta 4-1 on the road?
"We are looking forward to our inaugural match in the WPS," says Flash Head Coach Aran Lines. "This is an exciting time not only for our team, but for our organization. We've had a solid preseason and hope to start the season off with a successful match against a strong opponent, Boston,"
“The Flash have a talented and experienced team throughout their lineup and certainly up top with (Christine) Sinclair and (Alex) Morgan,” Breakers Head Coach Tony DiCicco said. “To contain them, I think we have to keep the ball well and also force these players to defend a bit. We also have to defend in groups.”
Boston will be without the services of star defender Jordan Angeli, who suffered a season-ending ACL injury in Atlanta. Although a defender, Angeli scored a goal against Atlanta and is a force on both sides of the pitch.
“We will not be able to replace Angeli with a similar type player, so we have to look at finding someone who can be successful, but in a different way,” DiCicco said.
“Jordi did a lot for us, and also scored goals, which, of course, is difficult to replace. However, someone will get a chance, and hopefully they will do the most with it.”
Still, the Breakers will have plenty of weapons at their disposal, including 2009 defender of the year and US international, Amy Lepielbet, plus English internationals Alex Scott and Kelly Smith. They have a balanced attack with their four goals in Atlanta attributed to four different players.
The club is tested and playing well and could be too much for an untested Flash squad, especially since Marta will not be available for this match.
Sunday’s game takes place at 6 p.m. at Harvard Stadium and will be broadcast on Fox Soccer Channel and streamed live at http://womensprosoccer.com.
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