In WPS Marta and WNY Flash Show Signs of Vulnerability,2-2 Draw with Sky Blue FC
When Sky Blue's Allie Long connected on the penalty kick to pull her club within a goal of WPS leading WNY Flash last Friday night, those fans who shrugged it off would learn soon enough how dangerous such complacence could be.
Perhaps it was because the Flash shrugged it off, continued to play uninspired as if the match was already in the bag, as if it would take a penalty kick in order for this team or any to score on them, that Sky Blue's Casey Nogueira was able to get close enough to have a virtual penalty shot against Flash keeper Ashlyn Harris in the 88th minute to tie up the match.
That certainly woke up the home team, inducing a new sense of intensity, urgency, even desperation for the remainder of the match. But it was too late. Not only had Nogueira's goal awakened her competition, it seemed to thrust her team mates into a higher level of play that countered the notch up of activity on the part of Western New York.
So while the Flash remains far and away atop Women's Professional Soccer and still undefeated with a record of 6-0-2 and 20 points, a crack has been exposed in the veneer of the putative "World's best women's team."
The Flash, who have made it a habit of scoring early, went scoreless for the better part of the first half until Christine Sinclair was finally able to break the deadlock with her league leading fifth goal.
Just a few minutes later, in the 40th minute, Sinclair appeared to be set to score on a breakaway, but instead backed off in the box and fed Caroline Seger for her fourth of the season and just like that, in classic Flash style, the home team was up 2-0 and looking poised to cruise on to their seventh victory in eight contests.
Is the Flash becoming complacent?
But then came the second half. The Flash was unable to finish or even get shots off, due to more effective back line pressure from Sky Blue. Marta was constantly being frustrated, looking quite mortal, for a change, although it did seem that the officials were allowing New Jersey to foul Marta at will without consequence.
As the half progressed the discerning Flash fan began to feel increasingly unsettled. The Flash seemed to be playing without focus and Sky Blue began creating opportunities for themselves.
Then, Becky Edwards made the blatant hand-ball in the penalty box and Allie Long converted it. And then, in the waning minutes of the contest, Nogueira waltzed through the Flash defense and nailed Harris for the tying score.
The previous week the Flash also had a scoreless second half. We were willing to chalk it up to heat and humidity. They had a two goal lead going into the half and were able to protect it.
But then against New Jersey, at home, in pleasant spring evening weather, in front of the season's second best crowd at Sahlen's Stadium, they played the second half as if they were on the road in high heat, and it ended up costing them in the end.
Does this signal a trend. Were the players distracted by thoughts of the upcoming World Cup, when eight of the Flash will be playing for their respective national teams? Or is this complacency setting in?
When New Jersey tied the match I told my colleagues in the press box that this would be the test. We'd find out if the Flash truly are the world's best club. Could they score at will when necessary? As it turned out, they couldn't. At least not that night.
Should they be worried? That is a question whose answer remains to be settled. We'll know a lot more when we see how the Flash plays two matches without their internationals. Will they do as well as they did against Boston without their stars?
If so, they could be un-catchable by the time the World Cup is over. If not, they could be in the middle of a horse race by the time the stars return. That would certainly create an interesting test. And even if they can't be caught from behind in the standings, can they sustain or reclaim their domination in the playoffs?
Were it not for their second half collapse on Friday night, we wouldn't be asking these questions. Because of it, we can't ignore them.
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