In their maiden Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) season, Western New York Flash became the third team in league history to clinch championship silverware. The Flash, who had won the regular season title and the right to host the final match, sealed an unforgettable first season with a 5-4 penalty shoot-out victory over Philadelphia Independence in front of a record championship crowd at Sahlen Stadium.
An expansion side last season, Independence were making their second consecutive appearance in the WPS Championship after defeating Florida’s magicJack 2-0 in the semi-final match, however, they were to go home empty-handed once again.
The final promised to be full of attacking prowess, with the likes of FIFA World Player of the Year Marta and Canadian international Christine Sinclair lining up for the Flash, while USA’s Amy Rodriguez highlighted Philadelphia’s frontline. However, it was the rearguard for each side that initially stole the show.
Flash, boasting WPS Defender of the Year Whitney Engen denied Independence of any real chances, while Philadelphia goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart kept the Flash’s catalogue of offensive stars at bay throughout the first half. However, it was Sinclair who was finally able to break the deadlock, slotting home in the 62nd minute after she was put through by a long-range pass from Candace Chapman.
Western New York appeared set to clinch the title through the Canadian’s solitary strike, but a dramatic close to the second half saw Rodriguez score the equaliser in the 87th minute to send the match into extra time.
While Flash lost substitute Beverly Goebel to a second yellow card in the first period of extra time, USA striker Rodriguez was frustrated by several missed chances. Flash captain Caroline Seger nearly put the match away in the dying moments of the second interval, with a header bound for goal, but an outstanding save from Barnhart left the match level at 1-1 and headed for penalties.
Each side coolly converted their spot-kicks, with no player buckling under the pressure of deciding the title on penalties. Yael Averbuch kept Flash perfect from the spot, scoring their fifth, while it was left up to Laura Del Rio to take Independence’s fifth kick. The Spaniard fired a fine chance towards the lower-right corner, but Goalkeeper of the Year Ashlyn Harris dived to block the chance and deny Independence their second chance at the trophy.
A season-long battle
It was the first time in WPS history, the top two regular season sides had made their way into the WPS Championship. In 2009, New Jersey’s Sky Blue FC pulled off a tremendous upset, defeating now-defunct Los Angeles Sol in the championship after having finished fourth in the standings, while second-place finishers Boston Breakers were defeated by Independence in the semi-final last season.
After an off-season of uncertainties, six teams committed to playing the 2011 WPS season, including expansion-club Western New York Flash. Swooping up eight players from 2010 WPS Champions FC Gold Pride, who ceased operations, Flash put together a promising cast and proved right out the gate they would be title contenders with a victory over Boston to open their campaign.
Philadelphia, meanwhile, experienced a stuttering start as they drew with Sky Blue FC and then lost to magicJack, who boasted seven USA national team players. However, with several WPS squads depleted during the FIFA Women’s World Cup™, Philadelphia were able to uproot Western New York from first place in July.
The taste at the top was hardly fought over, though, as Flash regained Sinclair and Marta, whose respective national teams suffered early exits from Germany 2011. While Western New York and Philadelphia took their battle for the regular season title down to the final day of the season, so too did Marta and Sinclair, each eyeing the league’s top scorer honours.
With only three points separating the league leaders, Flash saw off bottom-side Atlanta Beat with Marta getting on the scoresheet to seal her third consecutive season as WPS’s leading scorer with ten goals in 14 matches, while Independence were defeated by magicJack. The combined results stamped the newcomers place atop the table on the final weekend of the regular season.
Post-World Cup boost
After a sluggish start to the third WPS season, with sparse attendance, WPS crowds enjoyed an incredible boost after the FIFA Women’s World Cup, with new-found fans making their way through the turnstiles to catch a glimpse of the world’s best female football talent plying their trade stateside.
Perhaps most notable was the all-star affair staged between Western New York Flash and magicJack in late July. With Brazil’s Marta and an appearance from World Cup finalist Abby Wambach on offer, the match attracted the largest crowd to ever attend a WPS match.
Hoping to build upon the global exposure of women’s football post-Women’s World Cup, WPS capped off the 2011 season with an increase in interest and intent upon maintaining the league through 2012.
"We've got lots of momentum now to build the league I feel and we've got the Olympics next year," Western New York Flash owner Joe Sahlen said. "Now it's our job as owners and interested parties in the league to make sure we can keep that momentum going and grow in the future."