When Joe Sahlen made the commitment to move his women's soccer team into the big leagues, the goal was to be competitive and play for a championship.
That took less than one year to achieve.
The Western New York Flash won the Women's Professional Soccer championship in penalty kicks against the Philadelphia Independence at Sahlen's Stadium in Rochester on Saturday evening. Not a bad debut in the big leagues.
The Flash spent two seasons in the W-League with a 23-3-5 record while winning the 2010 W-League Championship. But a jump to WPS as an expansion franchise put the organization in a league with the best players in the world. As owner of the Flash, Sahlen put money into the team and with coach Aaran Lines assembled a roster filled with individual talent, including seven World Cup players.
It all came together in a regular-season title, a bye into the finals and a WPS championship.
For Sahlen, a long-time sports fan, the scene reminded him of the 1958 National Football League championship game and Baltimore Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas. That was when the Colts scored a touchdown to win the game in overtime, and Unitas nonchalantly walked off the field after Alan Ameche crossed the goal line.
"That's what his [Unitas'] goal was and what he set out to do," Sahlen said. "I have a similar feeling here. It's what we set out to do. It's just a tremendous sense of accomplishment. I'm so proud of our players and organization and the league."
But can the magic continue next year? Here are three questions for the Flash as the organization enters its offseason:
1. Who returns?
The biggest name on the roster is Marta and the Brazilian superstar had just one year remaining on her deal when the Flash assumed her contract which paid her a reported $500,000. Does Marta re-sign with the Flash?
Marta's 10 goals in 14 games gave her the WPS Golden Boot Award -- an honor she earned for the third straight year with her third team in the WPS.
Would the Flash prefer to let Marta go to another team and pick up Rochester native and Team USA superstar Abby Wambach? It's certainly an idea worth discussing, at least from a marketing perspective though Wambach may be happy to stay in South Florida.
Other key players include Christine Sinclair, who tied Marta for the league lead in goals (10) and led the league with eight assists. Alex Morgan showed some of her promise as a forward and her stock went way up after her performance in the World Cup for Team USA. In the back, Ashlyn Harris earned the league's goalkeeper of the year award while Whitney Engen was the defender of the year.
Most player contracts are for two to three years, so there likely will be contract negotiations and potential roster moves in the offseason. How the Flash handle the roster moves -- who they work to keep, who they let go, who they try to pick up -- will be interesting to watch. A franchise which paid for Marta to start their WPS era, however, indicates a franchise serious about winning.
2. Can they sell the regional concept?
Sahlen originally wanted the Flash to play in Buffalo, but when the franchise failed to secure a stadium, Sahlen struck a 10-year naming rights' deal with the Rochester facility. Enter the Western New York Flash -- a team which practices in Elma but plays in Rochester. This leaves Buffalo fans wanting the team to play in Buffalo while Rochester fans want the team to be renamed to reflect the location of the stadium.
But the Flash are working on selling women's soccer across the region. The team pulls in fans from the Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse areas and right now wants to give the regional approach some time.
"That's largely an economic situation," Sahlen said. "With women's sports struggling for recognition and therefore fan base, it makes sense to have a broader net so to speak to cast out and draw people in."
Numbers for thought: The Flash set a WPS attendance record on July 20 when 15,404 fans crowded into Sahlen's Stadium when magicJack came to town immediately following the World Cup. (And yes, most of them turned out to see Wambach who played for the visiting team.) The Flash led the league in attendance, averaging 4,881. Pre-World Cup the Flash drew an average of 3,060. Post-World Cup the average shot up to 8,523.
But lest you think fans only turned out to see Abby, there were 10,461 fans at the championship game on Saturday, setting a WPS record for a final.
The immediate message here: Don't expect the Flash to move their home games to Buffalo or change "Western New York" to "Rochester." But then again, never say never.
3. What kind of league will the Flash return to?
This was the third year of the WPS and the last two regular season champions, the LA Sol and FC Gold Pride, folded. That seems like a highly unlikely road for the Flash. Still, there is drama in WPS land as the league and magicJack owner Dan Borislow have had ongoing friction. The league has levied sanctions against the first-year owner who in turn filed a lawsuit against the league. It appears the two are headed for an uneasy truce.
Meanwhile, the league enjoyed a boost from this summer's World Cup, which brought attention to the sport and highlighted individual players sprinkled on rosters throughout the league.
Next year there is no World Cup to generate interest. But there is the London Olympics, running from July 27 to August 12. While that means another WPS season of shuffling players from their club teams to national teams, it also means putting women's soccer back on the national radar.
"We've got lots of momentum now to build the league I feel and we've got the Olympics next year," 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."