WNY Flash starting XI: Sabrina D’Angelo, Abby Dahlkemper, Elizabeth Eddy, Abby Erceg, Jaelene Kinkle, Alanna Kennedy, Samantha Mewis, McCall Zerboni, Jessica McDonald, Lynn Williams, Makenzy Doniak
Washington Spirit starting XI: Kelsey Wys, Shelina Zadorsky, Megan Oyster, Ali Krieger, Caprice Dydasco, Whitney Church, Victoria Huster, Christine Nairn, Francisca Ordega, Crystal Dunn, Estefania Banini
It was a sunny day in Houston when the Washington Spirit met the Western New York Flash. The Spirit were the steadier team during the season while the Flash rode an underdog wave all the way to the final, but there were plenty of people willing to bet on the Flash, especially with the pressure of so many betting on a Spirit win making it easier for the Flash to simply take the field and play.
The Flash took early control of the ball, winning it high up and looking for an early goal through Samantha Mewis, but there were no runners for her low ball right across the face of goal. The Spirit started to win back control in the midfield and it paid off early with a goal from Crystal Dunn in the 9’ when D’Angelo came off her line and Dunn was able to put the ball in from a steep angle.
The Flash quickly returned the favor though when Sam Mewis was given far too much time and space at the top of the 18 and was able to hold on to the ball long enough to tee up a nice shot, placed with finesse in the net to make it 1-1.
Washington took another hit in the 22’ when Caprice Dydasco went down with a left knee injury and had to be replaced by Alyssa Kleiner. The Spirit kept their five-back with Zadorsky, Church, and Oyster as the center three, giving Ali Krieger a little more room to spring forward. She was often found waiting high up along the edges of the box, waiting to be sprung by the midfield and work the ball in with Crystal Dunn.
Dunn was the engine behind the Spirit attack and blasted over, around, and through Jaelene Hinkle and to some extent McCall Zerboni. Dunn and her strike partner Ordega took a little time to calibrate, but after a few offside calls started to linger in better threatening positions. Still for all that, the game slowed down a bit as the half went on. The Spirit had the bulk of control of the game, but just like in the semifinal against Chicago, didn’t find away to capitalize on it. The first half ended at 1-1.
Western New York opened up the second half with heavy pressure again and very nearly found a way through in the 52’ when Jess McDonald made a deep run into the box, cutting the ball back to an open Lynn Williams. The cutback wasn’t quite on target though, sparing the Spirit from what would have surely been Williams burying the go-ahead goal.
The teams fought it out in the midfield until the Spirit came out on top again despite being pressured into some turnovers by the Flash. The game slowed down again into a deadlock, leaning more towards the Spirit, but just barely. Krieger and Dunn, so threatening in the first half, weren’t as locked in for the second half, although Krieger had a huge chance in the 78’ when she ripped a shot with her left foot that forced D’Angelo to dive and parry the ball away.
Both teams made subs in the 80’ with Diana Matheson coming on for Banini and Taylor Smith coming on for Doniak. Smith almost immediately made an impact, taking the ball deep into Spirit territory, but unfortunately without much support behind her. The Flash woke up a little bit with Smith on the field and began attacking through the right, trying to get through Kleiner, but the Spirit very nearly managed to break out in the 83’ with Ordega on the ball. McCall Zerboni smothered Ordega very literally, bringing her down before she could get far with the ball, and earned a yellow card for her efforts.
Both teams limped towards the end of regulation, ending at 1-1 after four minutes of stoppage and going to extra time.
Apparently Crystal Dunn was as tired as everyone else of the deadlock, because in the 91’ she scored this goal for the Spirit to make it 2-1.
The Flash pushed back and the game opened up, with a fresh Taylor Smith trying to work around Kleiner and sometimes managing to get the better of her as she searched for McDonald in the box, but Wys stayed alert.
The scoreline held into the second half of extra time, when the Flash made an attacking sub in pulling Zerboni for Kristen Hamilton and asking Mewis to drift a little lower.
The Spirit looked like they were going to close out the game with a 2-1 victory; they even had some late pushes towards goal that looked like they might really put the game away, but didn’t manage to slip one past D’Angelo.
All their unrushed play and missed chances came back to bite them in the butt in the last minute of stoppage. Jess McDonald got ahold of the ball deep along the Spirit left flank and served it far post to Lynn Williams, who buried the header to make it 2-2 and force penalty kicks.
WNY penalty takers: Abby Dahlkemper (goal), Jaelene Hinkle (goal), Jess McDonald (miss), Lynn Williams (goal), Samantha Mewis (miss)
Washington Spirit penalty takers: Ali Krieger (saved), Christine Nairn (goal), Katie Stengel (goal), Tori Huster (saved), Diana Matheson (saved)
Once again, Washington had a chance to put the game away, but Sabrina D’Angelo came up with three saves on penalties despite misses from McDonald and Mewis. The Flash ended up winning the 2016 NWSL Championship after a long, winding path that saw them just make the playoffs, then earn a result against two teams who were both favored to beat them. It was a case of one team having everything to lose, and another having everything to win, and the Flash’s insistence on playing to the bloody end combined with the Spirit not pouncing on every goalscoring opportunity took the underdog narrative and shook it by the scruff of the neck.
“It wasn’t one of our greatest performances. Certainly I don’t think the game was exciting as the two semifinals but we gutted it out,” said Paul Riley, who was not allowed on the sidelines with his team as he was serving a game out after being ejected in the semifinal against Portland. “We practiced penalties [but] it’s a whole different world when you’re kicking for a championship.”
“I thought [Washington] were the better team, certainly in the first half,” Riley added.
Erceg also though it wasn’t the Flash’s best performance. “But at the end of the day we got the job done,” she said.
“Like they said Washington did play better than us, but we kept fighting,” said the Flash’s hero of the day, Sabrina D’Angelo.
It was, perhaps, the essence of Vin Diesel’s pithy speech from the Fast and the Furious: it doesn’t matter if it’s by an inch or a mile. Winning’s winning.