The Week's WPS Highlights
Attendance Stays Up As 4,400 See Weeknight Match, Western New York Win Ugly.
As far as I know, Charlie Sheen is not a Western New York Flash fan. That’s a good thing. His “Winning!” mantra during his recent public melt-down was about as empty and ironic as it could possibly be.
Watching the WNY Flash “win” against the Boston Breakers on Wednesday night gave me a similar feeling.
On paper this is the world’s best women’s club soccer side, bar none. The starting front line for Wednesday’s match was the holy trinity of women’s soccer today: Brazilian phenom Marta on the left, Canada’s best, Christine Sinclair, currently the league leader in goals and assists, in the middle center, and the newest United States weapon, Alex Morgan on the right.
No other front line in the world, including national teams, could match this one. And for a while these three and the rest of the starting eleven played as if they deserved the "world’s best" designation. Sinclair opened the scoring by connecting on a pass from Marta in the 21st minute. Seven minutes later, Becky Edwards notched her third goal of the season on a long pass from defender and New Zealand international, Ali Riley.
Alex Morgan had several good runs and threatening shots. Marta had several near misses.
Will WNY finish first at the end of the regular season?
Then, early in the second half, Boston’s Alex Scott banked a shot in off the right post to make it 2-1. Flash keeper Ashlyn Harris could have easily batted the ball away. It was well within her reach, but she just watched it.
After that, instead of picking up their intensity, the Flash allowed Boston to pick up the pace.
There were moments when the club seemed to be a little too laid back. They had been attacking more intensely after scoring their second goal than they were once the lead had been cut in half.
This is of special concern since the Flash blew a two goal lead in New Jersey just before the World Cup break. Although they outplayed Sky Blue FC for all but a couple of crucial minutes in that match, WNY had to settle for a 2-2 draw.
They seem to have lost that “winning feeling” they had early in the season when no lead was good enough. They seem to lack the killer instinct one would expect of a team that deserves to be called the world’s best.
The Flash had to win this match just to pull even with surging Philadelphia. Lapses during the World Cup cost them a tie or a loss when they should have won, even without their World Cup stars. The club has not shown the consistency that one would expect from the amount of talent they have. They seem to have lost the ability to finish off a wounded opponent.
Who will win the WPS Playoffs and Championship
If winning is the word that means less than it seems for the Flash at the moment, consistency is the word that is completely missing from their lexicon.
In their previous match, on the road in New Jersey, the Flash annihilated Sky Blue FC, scoring four unanswered goals after falling behind early.
Marta, who has had a surprising difficulty finishing for the Flash in recent games, seemed to get her groove back with a convincing goal. Christine Sinclair kept her league lead, adding another goal and assist to her totals. McCall Zerboni came to life again with a solid finish. And Alex Morgan found the net again, reprising her World Cup heroics.
Now that was killer instinct. It appeared as if the team was back on track to closing out the season in full command of WPS. Then, four days later, the Flash were back to inconsistency.
To what should we attribute the consistency problem? Normally, one would point the finger at coaching. And it could be coaching. It is difficult to assess Aran Lines’s coaching ability, given the ability of his players. He seems to have done a reasonable job mixing the chemistry and managing the larger-than-life egos. They are a team. They play as a team. Even the divas show a remarkable amount of unselfishness. Lines gets an 'A' for that.
On the other hand, it is the coach’s responsibility to motivate his players, and keep them motivated. Early in the season it looked as if they would never lose. It seemed as if no one was even on their level.
Is Flash keeper Ashlyn Harris the club's weak link?
Philadelphia has certainly disproved that assumption. On any given day, Philadelphia can beat Western New York. Although they are the only club to have cracked the code, they've already done it twice.
There is no doubt that Philadelphia is a good club. Since they sent few players to the World Cup, they were close to full strength when they beat the Flash in two of three matches, while the Flash were missing their World Cup stars. But the Flash should not have lost both matches, if even one.
Is it overconfidence? Complacency? At what point is a team too good for its own good?
It is up to the coach to make sure that doesn't happen. So while I gave Lines an 'A' for chemistry, I’m giving him a 'C+' for motivation and focus.
Coaching issues aside, the primary problem is a defensive one. With the attacking arsenal at the Flash’s disposal, defense isn't as crucial as it is with a less powerful team. However, even the best teams depend on defense to get them through dry spells, injuries, call-ups and star-crossed games when the ball never drops right.
Considering the talent on the back line, it is disappointing that there have been a few momentary yet fatal lapses, when opponents have been allowed in too close and have cashed most of those checks.
Goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris has also been inconsistent. She’s played some impressive games and made brilliant saves at times, but against New Jersey last week she let one of two shots through. And against Boston on Wednesday, she let one in that she could have stopped.
Harris has led the league most of the season in goals allowed, but I put her in the same category as Karina LeBlanc of Marta’s original WPS club, the now defunct LA Sol. In 2009, LeBlanc led the league in goals allowed, but her offense led the league in goals scored. Under different circumstances, LeBlanc was unable to maintain those statistics, and in fact is no longer in the league.
I think Marta, Sinclair, Morgan and company are making Harris look better than she is. Her bursts of brilliance are a hint to her potential, but her lapses betray her flaws.
Harris becomes an especially glaring flaw in the Flash’s defense when one considers the fact that U.S. national team keeper Hope Solo was still available when Harris was signed. Solo remained available until very late in the off-season.
It appears that club owner Joe Sahlen, who was in hot pursuit of Marta, was convinced that if he had Marta he could live without Hope. I hope this will not prove to be the Flash’s undoing.
The Flash have three games remaining, while Philadelphia has two. Because Philly has the advantage in head to head competition, WNY cannot afford a tie for first place. They have to finish in first place outright or Philly will clinch the regular season title. With a game in hand, the Flash are still in control of their own destiny. If they run the table from here on, they take the regular season crown.
In WPS, winning the regular season means a bye throughout the playoffs until the championship match, and playing the championship match at home. Nothing would be better for the league than a final match between WNY and magicJack, bringing hometown hero Abby Wambach to fill the stands yet again. There’s little doubt that the Flash’s current league record attendance of 15,404 would be broken should that match-up occur.
Around the League: Go Back (magic)Jack! Do it Again! And Again; Will WPS Be There Next Season?
To add even more intrigue to that potential magicJack versus Flash championship match, is the fact that WPS plans to take the magicJack franchise back from renegade owner Dan Borislow at the end of the season. Borislow, the owner of the phone company for which the franchise was renamed (formerly the Washington Freedom, his team now plays in Boca Raton), is suing WPS in Florida court to prevent the seizure.
WPS contends that Borislow has not complied with league regulations and has “abused his players,” and that the mechanism for revoking his franchise is in his ownership contract. They also contend that Florida has no jurisdiction in the matter, since WPS is headquartered in San Francisco.
It will be interesting to see how this soap opera plays out. It is unfortunate, given the league’s surging post-World Cup attendance and an accompanying surge in fan interest, that league stability is again called into question.
After losing three original franchises in little more than a year (Los Angeles, St. Louis and Chicago), the arrival of Joe Sahlen and his Flash franchise saved the 2011 season. Since the league has indicated in the past that at least six clubs are needed to have a credible season, there is great concern for the future of the league if Borislow’s legal challenges fail and another owner for the magicJack/Freedom franchise is not found.
This is even more ironic since so many of the U.S. national team stars wear the magicJack colors, including Solo, Wambach, Megan Rapinoe and several others.
On the positive side, should the league find a way to continue without magicJack, the demise of the franchise would open the door for Wambach, a Rochester, NY native, to come home to live and play. Such a move would likely ensure that Western New York would not only play at a level above the rest, but would play in front of a crowd at one or two levels above the rest.
Regardless of magicJack’s future, Joe Sahlen and the league will find a way to get Abby back home one way or another.
It is hoped that some person or group will be able to buy the franchise and return it to Washington where a faithful fan base remains, pining for their lost Freedom. In fact, there was a Washington Freedom club team in the previous major women’s league, the WUSA. The Washington franchise continued to play as the Freedom after the demise of the WUSA and before the creation of WPS, with much of the WUSA roster intact, in the W-League. The Freedom then joined WPS. The league should do everything it can to return them to their proper home.
Another worthy alternative would be to resurrect the Chicago Red Stars with the current magicJack roster. When the Red Stars suspended operations for the 2011 season, they made it clear they were not shutting down for good..
In the meantime, they put a roster together and competed in the Women’s Premier Soccer League, losing in the finals. When we asked Red Stars officials if this should be seen as an indication of their plans to return to WPS, they did not comment directly but indicated that the option was still in play. Let’s hope Chicago comes back, whether they take over the magicJack franchise or not. They have a class organization and a strong, though smaller than hoped-for, fan base.
If nothing else, we can be guaranteed more drama once the season is over, as Red Stars decide their WPS fate and the not-so-magicJack issue is resolved.
John Wingspread Howell is a novelist, writer (about sports and life) and entrepreneur originally from, and now back home again in Buffalo, New York. http://johnwingspreadhowell.com