It's their first year in the big leagues of women's professional soccer, yet the Western New York Flash have already developed a culture of winning.
Last year, the franchise won the W-League Championship. As an expansion club with Women's Professional Soccer, the Flash have done something relatively rare in professional sports -- winning a regular season title and preparing to host the league championship on Saturday (4 p.m., FOX Sports Net).
"I don't think you could write this any better -- an expansion team comes into the major league and wins the regular season and gets to host the championship game," Flash coach Aaran Lines said. "It's something that we're all very proud of. The team signed new players. I had four players back from my championship-winning W-League team last year. To bring in the new players and see us gel from a great team of individuals into hopefully a great team was just fantastic."
To finish off the tale, the Flash need to come up with their biggest win when it counts, against the only opponent which has defeated the team during the regular season. Philadelphia won two of the three regular season games. And though both of those wins came when the Flash was missing many of their top players due to World Cup commitments, the Independence is a quality team that creates difficulties for opponents.
"Philly is a great team. They've been consistent in the WPS over the last two years," said Flash goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris. "They are very mobile, very high-energetic players who kill themselves until the whistle is blown. They don't quit. It's really hard to defend. It's hard to defend as a back four. It's hard to defend collectively. But now we're going to be home with our crowd, our big field, our style. It's going to be exciting."
The Independence (11-4-3, 36 points), who went to the WPS final last year, finished the regular season behind the Flash. They are led offensively by Tasha Kai (nine goals). Philadelphia's Veronica Boquete was the league's most valuable player a year removed from helping the Flash win the W-League championship.
Meanwhile the Flash (13-2-3, 42 points) boast the best offense in the league, scoring 40 goals in 18 games (2.22 goals per game) with Marta and Christine Sinclair each netting 10. Sinclair also led WPS in assists with eight. The talented roster features seven players who were in the World Cup in July which, while a positive from a skill level, made creating chemistry and continuity difficult at times.
But since July 24, the team has been in tact, closing out the regular season with six games with a full squad. And that has made a difference, even for a team which started the season on an eight-game unbeaten streak.
"I think with everyone leaving for international duties it was hard to find a rhythm," Sinclair said. "But ever since we've had our full team back, we've really been clicking and up top we've had a lot of success lately. We're just peaking at the right time."
Perhaps the best reward this year for the Flash in winning the regular season was getting a bye straight into the championship game. That gave the team 13 days between games with four days completely off to rest from a schedule that was packed not only with WPS games but World Cup matches and international travel.
It also gave some of the younger players time to catch their breath. Alex Morgan went from niche collegiate soccer star to a national women's sports superstar after her strong performance in the World Cup for Team USA. Morgan, who was the overall No. 1 draft pick by the Flash after finishing her career as an All-American for Cal, has enjoyed quite the rookie season.
"This has been the funest, craziest first professional year I could ever dream of," Morgan said. "It's certainly been the best year of my life so far and it has been a little bit of a whirlwind, but the past two weeks I've tried to step back and look at my life this past year and enjoy it. Now, I'm focused on Saturday and winning a WPS title."
WNY Flash vs. Philadelphia Independence
What: Women's Professional Soccer championship
When: 4 p.m. Saturday
Where: At Sahlen's Stadium, Rochester
Tickets: $13-$50, (585) 454-5425
TV: Fox Sports Net
Pregame: Abby Wambach autograph signing, 2:30-3:30 p.m.
Regular season results:
May 29 -- Flash 2, Independence 1
June 12 -- Independence 1, Flash 0
July 9 -- Independence 2, Flash 1