Gary Bruce takes discipline seriously, but not the "I'm going to bench you if you make a single mistake" form of discipline.
The new Western New York Flash head coach stresses a consistent attitude for his players, a devotion to the practice of doing things right, over and over again. The emphasis manifests itself in the Colorado native's own life. An example: Since March 22, Bruce has crafted a different haiku each day, filing them away in a notebook.
Call it quirky - he received his master's degree in creative writing from Colorado State after a bachelor's in philosophy from the University of Colorado, after all - but Bruce's approach has paid dividends, accelerating his rise up the coaching ranks.
Since his 2015 hiring as the Flash Academy's Director of Teams, Bruce has leaped at opportunities to further his career. He's assumed the role of Flash Academy Junior Program Director of Coaching, persevered through the application process to join the Elite Clubs National League (ECNL), accelerated the growth of the boys' side of the academy, accepted an assistant coaching role with the WNY Flash's National Women's Soccer League team before its championship season and now, after franchise rights were shipped to North Carolina, takes the helm of the Flash's amateur team in United Women's Soccer.
The Flash's home slate begins at 4 p.m. May 20 at Robert E. Rich All-High Stadium (2885 Main St.; $8, or $10 as part of a doubleheader with FC Buffalo), but the remainder of the matches will be at Niagara University. Full schedule here. WNY (0-1-1) took a point from their two-game road trip last weekend.
A shift from from the only professional women's league in the United States to an amateur side might lack glamor and be perceived as an unfair turn of events for Western New York footballers, but the result could ultimately benefit local female players.
One peek at BN Soccer's 2017 recruiting tracker reveals how much further ahead the girls side is than the boys, but previously, graduation from the Flash Academy (or any other local premier club) was the end of the road in Western New York; other than former fullback and current president Alex Sahlen, the Flash's NWSL team never rostered another Big 4 alum or Section VI high school player during its brief pro tenure.
While a Flash Academy alum would have likely been promoted to the NWSL team in the next handful of seasons had the franchise stayed put, it would have been the exception, not the norm. With the new setup in United Women's Soccer, Flash Academy graduates have a much better chance to continue to play in front of friends and family, with Bruce's UWS squad strewn with a variety of local players.
"We want older players who've seen it and done it, future professionals who are not quite ready [for the level], high school-aged players needing additional development - a mixture of players," Bruce explained.
His inaugural roster backs that statement: Kelsey Ferguson, Jenna Raepple, Brittany Heist, Dani Braun, Sarah Karlik, Megan Tock, Kaelyn Gamel, Rebecca Sanzsole and Gloria Chinasa represent the veteran cast, while clusters from Canisius College, the University at Buffalo and a bunch of WNY Flash Academy alums fill out most of the roster. Tess Ford (Williamsville East) and Hope Balling (Tonawanda) are two 2018 high school graduates in the side.
Sure, there's no Carli Lloyd, Abby Wambach, Sabrina D'Angelo or McCall Zerboni to inspire awe, but the restructured Western New York Flash still give local fans a reason to care.
As an assistant alongside Scott Vallow for the Flash's NWSL team in 2016, Bruce cultivated a relationship with veteran head coach Paul Riley, who's extended his gig with the North Carolina Courage after the move.
"Paul taught me to show up ready to be better every day," Bruce said, "and to adapt to other situations along the way."
While the championship season with the Flash remains a blur, Bruce isn't blind to his personal growth - and knack for seizing opportunity. "I went from the 'cone guy' to an active assistant in the finals," he recalls, a little shyly. "I led the warmup before games, then gave halftime and overtime talks when Paul was suspended [in the championship match]."
The lessons learned from Riley run deeper, touching on how to build, nurture and refine a successful team.
"There wasn't a single player on the team who didn't feel like Paul was in their corner," Bruce remembered. "He was incredible in training, on game day, in the locker room and on the field. The grace in which he managed a group of people - especially as they come and go - stood out to me.
"Players felt welcomed, and then he cared enough to say farewell," Bruce continued. "The social comfort this created was special, and it encouraged the team to train hard for one another."
The conclusion was part fairy tale in nature - in the semifinals, the Flash upset the Portland Thorns in double overtime in front of just over 20,000 fans in the Pacific Northwest, a hostile environment where only an unusual team could survive and flourish. Penalty kicks were needed to exorcise the Washington Spirit, but the Flash showed their poise in dire moments. It was Western New York's first - and likely last - NWSL title.
The championship celebration was gone in a flicker, however, and now the reality of starting from scratch comes to the forefront. For Gary Bruce, his fledgling UWS team offers a chance to capitalize on qualifications - like a USSF "A" coaching license - and to grow from his experiences as a Flash Academy boys coach and NWSL assistant.
"I've coached boys 9 vs. 9 for the last two years," Bruce admits, bluntly. "I'm educated in licenses and from what I learned as a player, but now the trends of women's soccer become even more relevant to me."
Like Riley, Bruce won't tied to one rigid system - he'll roll his eyes if you ask for his preferred style of soccer. The game isn't that simple, and he's learned to consider different in-game situations, the strengths of his opponents against those of his own side, plus the environment and meaning of the match, before he designs a plan.
"Paul established a system that's adaptable, one that balances intangibles," Bruce notes.
When pressed, however, Bruce answers with caution. "We'll be committed to defense and stay organized from the back forward," he begins. "We won't wager too much going into the attack, but the Flash are accustomed to a high-tempo, fast-paced approach, so it will be between those two bookends."
It will require watching Saturday's match against the New York Surf closely, but bear in mind Bruce's message to his players.
"Do the little things well. The difference in games is an un-special moment, not a special moment. It's how we transition from defense to offense, or how we win an individual tackle."