Sooner than expected, Western New York Flash arrive at NWSL title game

Craig Mitchelldyer/ISI Photos

The Flash defeat the Thorns 4-3 and advance to face the Spirit in the NWSL Championship game.

PORTLAND, Ore. -- The Western New York Flash won just three games on the road during a National Women's Soccer League regular season that stretched from spring blooms into fall foliage. All three road wins came against teams that ultimately failed to make the playoffs, the last of those wins necessary on the final day of the regular season to ensure they avoided that same playoff-less fate.

On Sunday afternoon at Providence Park, in front of an NWSL postseason record crowd of 20,086 and against the league's best team, the Flash did enough to win another road game.

Then they did it all over again, a 4-3 overtime victory earning a place in next week's title game.

Craig Mitchelldyer/ISI Photos

The Western New York Flash celebrate one of two Lynn Williams goals in overtime against the Portland Thorns FC in the NWSL semifinals.

When it ended, Portland coach Mark Parsons called it the game of the year. He was half right.

It was one game. And what a game it was. But Western New York had to win it twice.

Which is in its own way twice as impressive.

Ahead by two goals against a host that had trailed by that margin just once at home this season, Western New York watched its lead evaporate. Instead of victory, there was 30 minutes more soccer. So the Flash, without momentum on their side, without the crowd on their side and without their ejected coach on the sideline, did it all over again. Two goals in the first period of overtime finally proved enough to win the day.

It was the antithesis of so much that is postseason soccer, when the stakes tempt coaches and players to tread caution. Portland not only won the regular season title but compiled the best goal differential and allowed fewer goals than any other team. It did that without many of its best players for long stretches -- seven of 11 starters in Sunday's semifinals were also Olympians who spent a good bit of the summer in Brazil. Despite all of that, Western New York refused to play it safe.

"There was never a chance we were going to park the bus," said Western New York coach Paul Riley, who was ejected late in the first half after arguing with officials and watched the remainder of the game from behind the scenes while assistant Scott Vallow took charge. "We're just not that type of team. Even if I told them to park the bus, they wouldn't park the bus. They'd just ignore me."

But with a field littered with proven international stars, almost all of them in Portland's red uniforms and most of them occupying the entirety of the midfield, the Flash floored it. They were direct, aggressive and full throttle.

"You let Allie Long get on the ball, Lindsey Horan get on the ball, and eventually they're going to break you down," Riley said of two of Portland's many game-controlling midfielders. "The problem is if you do that, and then they score, then what? What's Plan B after that? Because now you've got to come and open the game up. I think from the start we felt make it an attacking game, open the game up, make it a free-for-all and see what happens."

Already sparsely coiffed, Parsons said he lost more hair and felt as if he had four heart attacks. Which more or less sums up the Flash's success in making it a roiling tempest of a game.

Western New York struck first, against the early run of play, when a teammate's scuffed shot fell to Sam Mewis in the box and she stuck the ball in the back of the net in the 16th minute. Rookie Makenzy Doniak made it 2-0 in the 38th minute, heading in a cross from Jessica McDonald. Both goals were indirectly the result of long McDonald throw-ins. In fact, three of the four goals Western New York scored began with McDonald chucking the ball into dangerous space and seeing what the ensuing chaos produced.

"Throw the ball far," Christine Sinclair half joked when asked what Western New York was able to do to be so successful. "We knew it was a huge weapon for them. And we faced it before. It's just we weren't able to deal with that today. We talked about it before the game, [that] it's almost better for them to have the ball at their feet than for us to kick the ball out for a throw-in. But we didn't learn from it, and we kept giving them those opportunities. And they made us pay."

Notably gracious in defeat, though it had to sting for a player who has been so good for so long that is easy to forget even her prime will eventually end, Sinclair wasn't diminishing the Flash. But if the goals came courtesy of a not-so-secret weapon, the win was much more involved.

After goals from Portland's Sinclair and Emily Sonnett leveled the game after 90 minutes, Western New York's Lynn Williams scored both of her team's goals in the first overtime. That pushed the lead to 4-2 before the Thorns pulled one back in an ultimately fruitless effort to force penalty kicks.

One Williams goal was the eventual result of another throw-in, the other a terrific first-touch finish off an assist from Mewis at the end of a long counter attack. But this wasn't a result earned through momentary opportunism. More than the goals, Williams embodied Western New York's game plan on the day when she pressed a Thorns defender in the corner nearest Portland's goal early in the second overtime period. The crowd roared their approval, rightly, when a corner wasn't conceded. But in the bowels of the stadium, Riley had to be cheering the effort still present in his young forward nearly two hours into the match.

"The part that I like about her is she's very coachable," Riley said. "She wants to learn. She knows how to run now. We spent a lot of time with her. I had Amy Rodriguez when Amy was this age, and she's very similar. Great speed, great turn of pace. She knows how to run. She's now learning how to hold the ball up a little bit. Her finishing is getting better. She's got all the tools. She didn't play at a big school, she didn't play in a big club program. She's a brilliant story."

We just didn't expect it, I'll be perfectly honest with you. But here we are.
Western New York coach Paul Riley

The league's Golden Ball winner, tied for the regular-season lead in goals with Houston's Kealia Ohai, Williams is a star in the making. Western New York has several of those.

"I think she deserves to be MVP, to be perfectly honest with you," Riley said.

There was, of course, some sweet vindication for Riley, even in absentia. Let go by the Thorns after two disappointing seasons and no playoff wins, he took over Western New York only a couple of months before the regular season. He recalled a meeting early in the process when it seemed both he and the players were wondering if it was the right fit. But the Flash won their opening game at FC Kansas City, one of those three road wins, after a late missed penalty.

"Maybe that changed the season for us, I don't know," Riley said.

Defeat has a thousand fathers. Portland didn't deal well with McDonald's throw-ins, or generally with the size and physicality she and Williams offered. The fans inside Providence Park certainly made it clear they felt the officiating didn't help, either, a possible handball and several other penalty shouts uncalled. Horan hit the crossbar in the first overtime, and Western New York cleared a potential leveler in the second overtime.

Western New York could have lost. More important is a team with so little experience played to win.

Maybe the playoffs were a possibility, they reasoned after that opening win in Kansas City. Then in another year or two, the young players more seasoned, perhaps a run at a championship. Instead, it's on to Houston.

"We just didn't expect it, I'll be perfectly honest with you," Riley said. "But here we are."

They could have fooled a lot of people Sunday. It's hard enough to win in Portland once.

Let alone twice.

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