Projected full strength lineup. Questionable starters in parentheses.
Chris’ 2016 NWSL Previews
1st – Seattle Reign
3rd – Washington Spirit
4th – Portland Thorns
5th – FC Kansas City
6th – Houston Dash
8th – Boston Breakers
Only the most strident WNY Flash supporter would have gone into last season expecting the club to rebound back into the playoffs after the 2014 disappointment, but most probably hoped for more than what they got, a dismal seventh place finish highlighted by a tepid offense and a leaky defense that conceded the second most goals in the league. A 5-1 massacre at Seattle on the opening weekend of the season set a tone, as the Flash would win just one of their first five matches. While the club’s young core showed some flashes at times, with players like Jaelene Hinkle, Sam Mewis, and Lynn Williams all looking like potential stars of the future in small slices, other parts of the team’s rebuild were bizarre to say the least. Early signings of players like Camille Kur and Ajara Nchout Njoya made little sense on paper, and the club went under a major shuffle midseason, with the likes of Lady Andrade and Michelle Heyman joining for the stretch run. The Flash weren’t embarrassing by any means, but they seldom looked like a side that would seriously challenge for the playoffs.
The offseason brought more upheaval, with manager Aaran Lines stepping down after a long stretch in charge of the club. Lines had brought great success to the team all the way through 2013, but, in all honesty, things had probably gotten a little bit stale with him at the helm. The roster also got another reset, as the team promptly got even younger, with players like Whitney Engen, Brittany Taylor, and Sydney Leroux all heading for the exit. Another infusion of youth has left just three players twenty-five years of age or older. Managing that group of youngsters this year is new boss Paul Riley, fresh off a disappointing two seasons with Portland. It’s perhaps a perfect marriage between two entities trying to stay relevant in the current pro WoSo landscape, but there are also signs that both may also be in increasing danger of being anachronisms from an era gone by.
This is truly the last chance saloon for Paul Riley. It seems unfathomable at first glance that a manager who was a penalty shootout away from a WPS title in 2011 may be on his last legs as a boss at this level, but this is likely Riley’s last chance at glory given the ugly ending of his tenure in Portland at the end of last season. Expected to meld a perennial championship contender in Portland, Riley’s two-year tenure instead was a paean to underachievement, his expensively assembled squad enduring the humiliation of a sixth place finish, a shocking seven points off the playoff places despite an armada of talent at the club’s disposal.
Or maybe that perception of talent was all in our and Riley’s heads. The veteran boss seemingly had a blinkered approach to team construction, casting his faith in favorites and veterans that either underachieved or couldn’t get off the training table. Seeing the likes of Stephanie Catley and Alex Morgan miss so much time injured didn’t exactly help matters, but neither did a faltering eye for new talent, with the likes of Genoveva Anonma and Sarah Robbins going down as some of the bigger international busts in league history. Riley also was all too willing to cast his lot with internationals who missed huge chunks of time at the WWC and all but ignored the draft, meaning the club was all too dependent on amateur reserves to fill gaps, which worked about as well as you’d expect.
It’s hard to tell if Riley’s learned his lesson in that regard, as no fewer than six of the club’s players are likely to be at the Rio Olympics in August. For a side that doesn’t look to be too deep on paper, that could be the kiss of death, and ironically, Riley may not totally be to blame considering he took over so deep into the offseason. But trading the likes of Mallory Weber even before she had suited up for the club officially has to be gnawing at Flash fans fearful that their old nemesis is too grounded in his ways to adapt to a shifting reality in the NWSL.
And that really is the rub with Riley’s marriage with the Flash. He worked well with an island of misfits in Philadelphia in WPS, crafting that oddly assembled team into a unit that was so much more than the sum of its parts. By contrast, when expectation shone heavily on him in Portland, Riley blanched, with his side looking less than their impressive resumes. The situation in Rochester is more of the former, but Flash fans will likely be wary of their new boss’ reputation as someone who has no time for youth and who plays hard and fast with his trusted favorites. Given Riley’s reputation for chopping and changing personnel, you wonder how many of these players are still going to be in the team’s colors come season’s end and how many draft picks the club will have next season given the former Thorns’ boss’ disdain for the process.
To put it bluntly, this position has never really been one of stability for the Flash over the course of three seasons. Seemingly having the position set for a long, long time with AD Franch in goal, the keeper’s knee injury in the preseason of 2014 set off a chain reaction that has seen a whopping six netminders used in Rochester over the past two seasons. To date, none have looked like a solution to a long-term problem, with Franch’s shadow still looming large over the goal for the Flash.
That number’s likely to increase by at least one this season, as the starter for most of last season, Chantel Jones will not play in the league this season. Jones perennially looked like a keeper too talented for a backup role but not good enough to build a club around in her time in the NWSL. Despite the highly touted Sabrina D’Angelo’s acquisition before last season, Jones ended up taking the bulk of the minutes and was first choice down the stretch, which didn’t exactly make much sense considering D’Angelo’s youth and the fact that the club’s playoff hopes were truly dead and buried by August. Despite playing in just thirteen matches, Jones was near the top of the errors leading to goals chart and likely didn’t figure into the club’s long-term plans before her departure.
On paper, that would likely put the starting job in the hands of D’Angelo once more. The Canadian appeared to have a leg up on the starting job in the early part of the season but was injured in mid-May and never really regained a great amount of momentum with a few notable errors blotting her copy in her rookie season. While D’Angelo still has a lot of upside and room to grow into her massive potential, the Canadian also may find herself elevated to the starting job at the Rio Olympics given Erin McLeod’s recent major knee injury. At the very least, D’Angelo should be on the plane to the tournament, meaning she could miss a handful of matches again this season which could further delay her gaining a firm grip on the starting job.
She’ll get competition for the starting job from the club’s new draftee, Britt Eckerstrom. Eckerstrom entered her senior season at Penn State as a solid keeper who had never quite put things together despite having a lot of potential to her name. However, everything clicked in 2015, even playing behind an amazingly young backline, as Eckerstrom turned into one of the nation’s top keepers while helping her club to a first national title. It’s hardly a surprise she was drafted after that senior season, though being the first keeper off the board in this class certainly comes with some expectations attached. Given Riley’s hesitancy in playing rookies heavily, Eckerstrom figures to begin the season as the backup in goal but should still see some action when D’Angelo’s away on international duty. And if she impresses when in goal, who knows if she’ll relinquish the starting job, even after the Olympics?
The club will also need a third goalkeeper when D’Angelo is away on international duty. Who’ll it be? Your guess is as good as mine, as the Flash haven’t had one in camp to the best of my knowledge.
Riley’s been more than willing to juggle goalkeepers in the past, and given the youth and inexperience at the position currently, he’ll probably do so again this season unless someone stakes a real claim for the job. Given that the back four in front of the keepers is pretty young in turn, there could be some real growing pains for D’Angelo and Eckerstrom this season. It will be very interesting to see how much of a leash Riley gives whoever wins the starting job considering both keepers look relatively evenly matched on paper.