Sitting through the 2014 season had to be like chewing nails for the WNY Flash, a franchise accustomed to success. A side that had known nothing but success in the W-League, the WPS, WPSL Elite, and after 2013, the NWSL, was instead mired in mediocrity last year. A side that had been kept mostly intact from the 2013 team that had won the regular season title and lost in the final looked shockingly stale, with losses of key players like AD Franch and Estelle Johnson keenly felt. The defense crumbled, while untimely injuries forced the team to a third-string keeper at one point. The end result was a seventh place finish, something most probably felt was unfathomable at the beginning of the season.
Instead of minor tweaks, the Flash opted to blow it all up, likely a wise move considering how stale things looked for much of the year. The organization brought in Charlie Naimo to help reinvent the team, and the first step of that reorganization was basically conducting a fire sale, trading away almost all of the club’s top talent for high draft picks in a top heavy draft. The result is a drastically different team that looks to have some fantastic young talent but that also looks short on depth. Most aren’t expecting much in terms of a playoff run from the Flash, but Naimo, head coach Aaran Lines, and co. aren’t exactly the unambitious type, meaning it may not exactly be a shock if this WNY side hangs around the playoff picture longer than many may expect.
For head coach Aaran Lines, 2014 was the first real mark of adversity he’s faced since the Flash went professional in the final year of WPS. Lines has found it remarkably easy to collect trophies all the way up to last season, where the Flash looked curiously short of answers as their season disintegrated. For Lines, 2015 represents a real gutcheck season. Highly respected as one of the creme de la creme in terms of coaches of domestic WoSo in the U.S., Lines saw some of the sheen come off of his star given the struggles of last season. I doubt anyone is expecting WNY to march right back to a title this year, but if there aren’t signs of a bright future, some may wonder if Lines’ time at the top of the coaching ladder may have come and gone.
The other real bit of intrigue has to be the addition of Charlie Naimo as technical director. It’s obvious from the wheeling and dealing and the acquisition of many past Pali/Los Angeles Blues players that Naimo has had a very real hand in reconstructing the Flash, almost from scratch. The co-existence of two pretty headstrong individuals in Lines and Naimo might make for a juicy subplot, especially if the club seeks to make personnel moves midseason if they’re still in the playoff hunt. The Flash mortgaged the present to bring in a ton of young talent while also potentially mortgaging the future in the Leroux trade that cost them a first-round pick in 2016. The brass are betting much that the nomadic forward is worth the price.
In terms of tactics, there’s much that looks to be settled and much that doesn’t as the regular season approaches. The trade of Amber Brooks has complicated things in midfield a bit, with Jordan Angeli not likely to be a ninety minute player alongside Becky Edwards. The end result might be Abby Dahlkemper moving into a defensive midfield role as has been the case in preseason, with Toni Pressley slotting in at center-back. All bets are off when Whitney Engen is with the USWNT, as it’s hard envisioning the club not moving Dahlkemper back to center-back, though slotting Brittany Taylor back there is an option, with Kristen Edmonds possibly coming in at right-back. What to do with the midfield in that case is the question, with Angeli really the only other proven central midfield option. New acquisition Amanda Frisbie could conceivably get a run out in central midfield as well.
The only thing known for sure about the attack is that Sydney Leroux is probably going to spearhead it and that Lynn Williams will be on the pitch in some fashion when she’s done with school at Pepperdine. Beyond that, there are questions. The club could conceivably opt for two up front, but Williams and Leroux may be too much the same player to make it work, while there are also a lack of central midfield options to potentially make a narrow 4-4-2 happen. There are even more dilemmas when Leroux is gone. So little is known about the Flash’s forwards’ ability to hack it at this level that projections are hard to make. Camilla Kur is an option as a center-forward, though Williams could slide up that way. Jasmyne Spencer is an option as well, as her experience at this level could be a godsend on a young frontline. Spencer though has been best used as a super sub, so some of the club’s more marginal frontline players could get a run out during the WWC as well.
Oh, the difference a year makes.
A little over a year ago, if you would’ve said that the Flash would be likely looking at a platoon situation in goal in 2015 and breaking in another potential “goalkeeper of the future”, you probably would be looked at a little strangely. But fortunes change quickly at this level, with AD Franch going down in preseason with an ACL injury after her star turn as a rookie. The club signed Lydia Williams as a replacement, but she herself was felled with an ACL injury midseason. Draftee Kelsey Wys held down the fort for the rest of the campaign, save for a small stretch where Didi Haracic was needed to fill in for an injured Wys. It was chaotic to say the least.
And it’s all change this season. Franch is gone, having left for Norway after reported contractual disputes with the Flash, robbing the club of one of its few potential superstars right out of the box. Wys was traded to the Washington Spirit in the offseason despite a somewhat promising rookie campaign, while Williams was waived, though she would’ve missed most of the season on international duty at any rate. It means the Flash will have a third new starter in goal for opening day in as many seasons.
The likely starter in goal is Chantel Jones, acquired via trade from Washington, with the Flash giving up Kelsey Wys in return. On the face of it, it doesn’t particularly look like a great trade on paper, with Wys having shown some promise last year, while Jones endured some calamitous times in net for the Spirit. After a solid 2013 as the Spirit’s #2, some wondered if Jones was on the precipice of being a #1 somewhere, but last year’s shaky display hardly inspired confidence. In reality, this may be Jones’ only chance at winning a #1 job long-term, and if she has more hiccups in form, it could be a career’s worth of being stuck on the treadmill of being a backup option instead of the top option.
Jones will be pushed strenuously for the starting job by Canadian draftee Sabrina D’Angelo. As the last line of defense for South Carolina’s perennially well-drilled and stingy unit, D’Angelo has been a superstar for the Gamecocks since stepping foot onto campus a half-decade ago. The Canadian boasts tremendous athleticism, great footwork and kicking game, and no shortage of confidence in between the pipes. That doesn’t mean that D’Angelo’s a faultless prospect, as she has struggled with crosses at times and is vulnerable to the occasional individual error. But clubs don’t spend international slots on backup keepers in the long-term, and the expectation here is that D’Angelo is the club’s goalkeeper of the not-too-distant future. How quickly she matures and adjusts to this level will ultimately decide how fast her rise will be.
The Flash will boast one of the league’s most unpredictable goalkeeping situations in 2015. While WNY won’t have their starter away at the WWC, one of the few club’s that can boast that, neither Chantel Jones nor Sabrina D’Angelo is proven at this level. Jones will probably begin the season as the starter but must do better than last season if she is to hold that position come season’s end. D’Angelo has the greater upside, though she’s far from assured from wresting the starting role from Jones right away.
A defense that had served WNY well in 2013 suddenly didn’t last year. That’s simplifying things, with Alex Sahlen gone on maternity leave and Estelle Johnson on sabbatical, but the remaining elements were far from convincing. The endproduct was a major shakeup in the ranks, with Brittany Taylor and Kristen Edmonds the last two defenders standing. There’s been a major infusion of talent, with Whitney Engen, Abby Dahlkemper, Jaelene Hinkle, and Toni Pressley all acquired over the offseason. Getting the group to gel in a hurry is Lines’ task, and it’s one that needs to be accomplished quickly considering some of the questions in attack.
Thought of as the defensive cornerstone for one NWSL team, Whitney Engen takes up the same role for another at the start of 2015. Engen joined the Houston Dash in June after finishing up with Tyreso in Sweden but was unable to really engineer much upward movement with the expansion franchise, as they and Engen sunk to the bottom of the table by season’s end. Most expected changes for Randy Waldrum’s side, but few likely expected Engen to be one of the players on the move considering her status as the club’s best defender. But with Houston looking to bolster their offense, and WNY looking to reinvigorate their defense, Engen returns to the place where she won a WPS title in 2011. The Flash will be hoping for similar returns this season, though the center-back figures to miss much of the season on international duty with the USWNT at the WWC.
Seemingly with as high a profile as she’s had in years after WNY’s superb 2013 season, Brittany Taylor crashed back to Earth in an error strewn 2014 as the Flash’s defense struggled mightily. Given a new center-back partner in Kathryn Williamson, Taylor never really gelled with her fellow central defender and was guilty of some glaring individual errors that proved costly as the defeats piled up for the Flash. At twenty-seven, Taylor should be entering the prime of her career, making 2015 a very important campaign in deed for the former UConn star. With Whitney Engen and Abby Dahlkemper coming into the fold, Taylor may be moved back to full-back, likely at right-back, when the club is at full strength. With Engen missing much of the season on international duty though, Taylor again could be in central defense for the Flash with a third different center-back partner in as many years in Rochester.
The Flash will be banking on first round pick Abby Dahlkemper to help stabilize a defense which was victimized by poor play all too often last year. Dahlkemper likely starts at center-back from day one here and will be looking to build upon a burgeoning reputation forged from four tremendous years at the heart of the UCLA defense. Great in the air despite not being the tallest, swift enough of foot to keep pace with quick forwards, and boasting defensive instincts that can’t be quantified, Dahlkemper has the look of a player destined to make the leap to the full USWNT in the future. In the preseason, Dahlkemper saw time at defensive midfield, and with the trade of Amber Brooks to Seattle, that may be her role in the first team to begin the season.
Another first-round pick, Jaelene Hinkle, is likely to solve the club’s revolving door at left-back. A preeminent member of perhaps the best rookie class of full-backs ever, Hinkle was a four-year star for Texas Tech as she was a key member in bringing the Red Raiders up to the level of contender after so many years in the wilderness. A player with a relentless motor and no shortage of pace on the flank, Hinkle will be key in stretching play considering the midfield looks light on width on paper. Whether Hinkle is able to maintain that pace for ninety minutes over the course of a grueling college season remains to be seen, but the former Red Raider has the potential to be one of the leagues very best full-backs in time.
The Flash made another reacquisition, bringing back center-back Toni Pressley, who was with the team in WPSL Elite when they won the title, helped by Pressley scoring a screamer to equalize in the title match. That was a high point for Pressley though, as the former Florida State defender has not particularly enjoyed a fruitful career in the NWSL thus far. Pressley was the starting center-back on one of the league’s worst defenses last season, and few amongst the rabid Spirit support shed tears at the trade that took her back to Rochester. Early indications are that Pressley may start in central defense for the Flash, and perhaps a fresh start may be what is needed for the former U.S. youth international to reinvigorate her career after some struggles.
Kristen Edmonds enters her second season with the Flash having been one of the few to survive the roster cull after last season. Edmonds was the club’s starting left-back for most of 2014 but is far from guaranteed to hold that role again going into her second NWSL season. The former Rutgers player was just one of four on an underachieving backline, and the Flash didn’t particularly spend a first round draft pick on Hinkle to have her sit on the bench for any length of time. That in mind, Edmonds may have to make an impact off the bench as a super sub on the left flank, be it on defense or further up the flank.
It wasn’t any secret that the Flash were looking for some extra depth in the preseason, and they got that with the late signing of Chelsea Stewart. Surprisingly allocated by Canada going into last season, Stewart had trouble making an impression with the Breakers, playing in just ten matches. That’s not exactly inspiring considering the former UCLA player was trying to break into a Breakers side that couldn’t defend to save its life. Also capable of playing in midfield, Stewart still has the type of versatility that clubs need at the end of the bench, especially in a WWC year. Lines will be hoping to coax some of the talent out of Stewart that once had her amongst Canada’s brighter prospects.
There’s the potential for a pretty good defense here if Lines can get everyone pulling in the right direction and if everyone plays to their potential. The issue with having three central defenders seems to have been solved by moving Dahlkemper into midfield, though she’ll likely slide back into defense when Whitney Engen is away with the USWNT. If this group gels quickly, it could be the best unit for the Flash in 2015.
What worked so well one season didn’t work nearly as well last year for the Flash. The triangle of Carli Lloyd, McCall Zerboni, and Angela Salem provided balance, energy, and a goal threat in 2013 as the Flash won the regular season title but looked remarkably stale last season. It’s surely not an accident that all three are gone and that the Flash wasted no time in rebuilding the unit with some strong talent, though the depth on paper doesn’t look exceptional.
With Carli Lloyd having played such a big part in the Flash’s first two NWSL seasons, the pressure will be on for a player brought in to be her direct replacement, Samantha Mewis. Mewis was the poster child for potential unfulfilled early in her collegiate career at UCLA before rounding into form as one of the nation’s very best players this past season for the Bruins. Sixteen goals in 2014 were one more than Mewis had combined in three previous years, while the Bruins superstar also added thirteen assists. While it’s probably a WWC cycle too soon for the younger Mewis, that’ll just mean a full season of NWSL play, with the Flash likely to try and build the offense around their new playmaker. It’s doubtful that Mewis can replace Lloyd’s scoring brilliance from distance right away, but the club will be counting on their first round draft pick to be a creative engine in the middle of the park. If she can’t, the Flash are probably going to be in trouble considering the utter lack of similar playmakers on the roster at the moment.
Behind Mewis, there’s only a smattering of depth in the midfield. Back after a trade from Houston, Becky Edwards will look to continue as one of the league’s very best defensive midfielders after a fantastic season in the center of the park with the Dash. There were questions going into the 2014 season after Edwards had torn her ACL in June of 2013 with Portland, robbing the veteran of a chance to star in the Thorns’ title winning campaign. Left unprotected in the expansion draft, Edwards played like she had a point to prove with Houston, one of the few stars in an otherwise moribund season. It’s likely given hope to the fact that Edwards might be able to finally break through the glass ceiling and onto the USWNT if she keeps starring. She’ll have to for a Flash team short on recognized depth in the center of midfield.
Jordan Angeli looks likely to start the season as well in the center of midfield, though given the lack of numbers here, it may as well be by default. Angeli was an inspirational story last season for the Washington Spirit, having been sidelined since April of 2011 with an ACL injury suffered in WPS action with Boston. That Angeli was able to make a pro roster after such a serious injury and layoff was a major credit to her perseverance. Angeli was used as a defensive sub off the bench, an was actually sent off in one of her two starts and played in just one game after June 15. Moving to the Flash via trade in the offseason, the Rochester club will be hoping that the veteran can sustain major minutes, because there aren’t really a hell of a lot of other options since the team traded Amber Brooks away.
Mewis and Edwards are great building blocks in midfield for the Flash, but there’s a real frightening lack of depth here after the roster purge and rebuild. Lines used Dahlkemper as a defensive midfielder in the preseason, and the numbers are to the point that she might have to play in midfield again, which is hardly ideal considering her abilities at center-back. Others like Amanda Frisbie and Chelsea Stewart could be used here, and don’t rule out more moves to fortify this unit.
Many of the questions this season for the Flash are going to come up front, where the club suddenly has a vacuum after the departures of Abby Wambach and Samantha Kerr. Wambach’s trade to Seattle after indicating she wasn’t going to be playing in the NWSL in 2015 naturally caught most of the headlines, but it might be the loss of Kerr that resonates loudest. After teasing her true potential in 2013, Kerr blossomed into one of the few bright spots for the Flash last year, turning into not just a great winger but a true threat on goal. Her trade to SBFC signaled a major sea change for the Flash who perhaps added more firepower than expected with the trade to bring Sydney Leroux in. Given the questions and youth elsewhere, Leroux’s going to have to score her fair share if the Flash are to push for the playoffs.
The late addition of Sydney Leroux to the Flash’s attacking ranks may go down as one of the most shocking trades in professional women’s soccer history in the U.S. Leroux has been touted by Lines as a “franchise player”, but she’s also a player on her third franchise in three seasons after growing unsettled in her previous two stops after a season in each. 2014 was certainly not as big as 2013 for Leroux, as she struggled to ignite Seattle’s offense. The former UCLA star slipped to just five goals on fifty-one shots and never seemed to gel with the Reign’s other offensive pieces. Some suspected Leroux might be sent to FC Kansas City with her husband Dom Dwyer playing for MLS’ Sporting Kansas City, but the move to the Flash was a huge curveball. Leroux will be counted upon to break the scoring funk that she suffered through most of 2014 with. If Leroux ends up getting back to her 2013 scoring form, this could be a masterstroke from the Flash. But if Leroux’s college and pro careers have taught us something, it’s never to take anything for granted with the USWNT stalwart.
The Flash started to rebuild their offense through the draft with the pick of Pepperdine’s Lynn Williams. The Waves striker does have a reputation as a bit of a gunner with a high usage and low efficiency rate, but playing with professional level players may help with those issues. And if those issues do get fixed, the Rochester side have a potential superstar on their hands. Williams possesses explosive pace that regularly left collegiate defenders chasing shadows as the jet-heeled forward sped past them. With Leroux and Jasmyne Spencer joining Williams, the Flash could have one of the fastest frontlines in the league. Unfortunately, WNY will have to wait a bit as Williams finishes up with school, and the club will be hoping that doesn’t stunt her growth with the team any.
Danes were always going to be in heavy demand this Summer, with Denmark arguably the best nation to have not qualified for Canada 2015. One of those Danes, Camilla Kur, will be expected to get amongst the goals for the Flash this year. Kur has been starring for Danish powerhouse Fortuna Hjorring in recent seasons, playing in both a central and right-wing role. Kur isn’t a total stranger to this country, having played briefly for the Colorado Rapids Women in the W-League a few years back. The Dane also netted six goals in twenty-eight Women’s Champions League appearances for Fortuna Hjorring and Brondby. She’s an unknown commodity at this level though, but most of the club’s other frontline prospects are in the same boat, meaning Kur could still be a major player for the Flash attack this year.
One of the few returnees for the Flash from last year’s squad is Jasmyne Spencer, the diminutive forward now a fixture in the league just a little more than a year after it appeared her professional career at this level was all but over. Spencer, as has been custom in her pro career, played the role of super sub for much of the season, save a small stretch in the second half of the season, though she seldom lasted the ninety minutes. The lightning quick Spencer netted three goals and added an assist and remains a dangerous option for clubs off the bench as she gets to run at tired legs. Spencer’s still got a chance at starting minutes though as almost all of the other forward options are unproven at this level. The Flash will be hoping for a breakout season from Spencer given the opportunity, as it might take a while for the other forwards to find their feet.
Potentially seen as a throw in in the trade that took the rights to Abby Wambach to Seattle and that brought Leroux to Rochester, Amanda Frisbie will be hoping to make a belated start to her professional career. A first-round pick in Seattle last season, Frisbie endured a frustrating rookie year, struggling with injuries and not seeing a minute of action for the Reign. If healthy, Frisbie has the potential to be a real difference maker for the Flash. Her versatility is a huge plus, as Frisbie has the ability to play just about anywhere in the field. Given the club’s depth issues in midfield and question marks in the frontline, Frisbie could be used as a utility player in either of those zones. If Frisbie can knock off the rust, the Flash could have gained a real bargain in the former Portland Pilot.
Kristen Hamilton, another late signee, was one of the best stories of the preseason. Drafted by the Flash in 2014 with their last pick, Hamilton was a big time sleeper coming out of college but had her season cut short by an early preseason ACL injury. Healed and still effective up front if early evidence is correct, Hamilton could well be a true sleeper for the Flash. It may not have been at the highest level, but Hamilton still netted fifty-one goals in her collegiate career at Denver and has an intriguing amount of upside. If she can get rid of the rust early and acclimatize to this level, there should be more than enough major minutes available for her on the frontline.
One of the big unknowns this season for the Flash is Cameroonian forward Ajara Nchout Njoya. The youngster is a mainstay with her national side after featuring at the 2012 Summer Olympics and will miss a big chunk of the season at the WWC this season. Njoya also has European experience, having played for a few Russian sides, including FC Rossiyanka, getting the to quarterfinals of the UEFA Women’s Champions League at one point. However, Njoya’s scoring record in such a marginal league wasn’t particularly impressive, the Cameroonian netting seven in thirty-seven matches. It’s a big step up in class, and it’s one the Flash will be hoping she can make considering the club’s lack of proving scoring depth.
Leroux’s the closest thing to a sure thing the Flash have up front which should tell you a lot. Leroux also won’t be here all the time due to USWNT commitments, meaning Lines has to find a way to scratch some goals out of a striking corps that has very little experience at this level. There’s certainly potential amongst most of the bunch, but getting that potential to turn into goals over the course of a short twenty match season could be a big ask.
Patience usually isn’t in order in Rochester, as success hungry Flash supporters will be hoping their side makes it back to the playoffs in 2015. But realistically, expectations in Rochester have to be at a low ebb after basically putting together an entirely new team. Naimo’s done well to hoard young, promising talent along with a handful of veteran warhorses. But the NWSL has evolved to the point that building from scratch probably isn’t going to guide a team to the top of the table in the short-term.
Which means, as much as WNY supporters may hate hearing it, the club is going to go through some growing pains in 2015. There’s just enough raw talent here that the club is probably going to win some games they shouldn’t. But the youth also means they’ll lose some they shouldn’t. Though the team goes through the WWC with less worries than some of their rivals, there’s just not enough strength in depth here to think that WNY can make a playoff push over a twenty match season. Still, they might be just one more big offseason away from making a quantum leap forward.