A league-saving expansion team
PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- On a balmy Saturday night in Piscataway, N.J., thousands of fans are in a single-file line that weaves around the smoky outskirts of this cozy college soccer stadium. The line extends past a makeshift grassy parking lot and halfway to a roundabout approximately four football fields away. When the visiting team runs onto the field to warm up, dressed from head to toe in black, the now-seated crowd explodes into cheers. This rabid support has become routine for the visitors, an anomaly in a league which has always struggled to fill its bleachers.
"We don't get crowds like this down here, ever," a befuddled Rutgers University security guard at Yurcak Field mutters. "These people must all be here for them."
"Them" is the Western New York Flash, an electrifying collection of talent that is running roughshod over women's professional soccer. On this late-July evening, the Flash went on to defeat Piscataway-based Sky Blue FC 4-1 and have since pushed their record to 13-2-3, finishing the regular season with the best mark in the WPS.
Having won five matches in a row, the Flash enter Wednesday's postseason as the odds on favorite to take home the WPS title: an impressive accomplishment any year, but nearly unheard of for a first-year team. Due to the league's playoff format, they won't play again until the WPS finals on Aug. 27.
The Flash hasn't lost a game this season when its had all of its players available. The team's "big three" (Marta, Christine Sinclair and Alex Morgan) rival any other soccer trio in star power across America, male or female. And judging by attendance figures since the Women's World Cup ended, the Flash may be the catalyst that pushes women's professional soccer into mainstream America.
Even in a six-team league where everybody has great players, the Flash has an abundance of talent. Marta, the dazzling Brazilian forward, has been called the best female soccer player ever. Fellow forward Sinclair is the Canadian national team's all-time leading scorer. Twenty-two-year-old Morgan became an instant media darling after scoring the first goal for the U.S. in last month's World Cup final. Ali Riley and Caroline Seger, the best players on New Zealand's and Sweden's national teams, respectively, round off the Flash's internationally diverse group.
Through its three-year existence, the WPS has had its share of problems. Formed after the failure of the Women's United Soccer Association in 2003, the WPS has been snake bit by many of the same problems that have derailed other smaller sports leagues across the country. Regardless of the product on the field (36 WPS players played in this year's World Cup), fans have failed to consistently show up, leading to the folding of four teams since 2009.
The low point came in 2010, when Northern California-based FC Gold Pride, the league champion, was forced to shut down because of a lack of funding. Sinclair played for the Pride in its final season and recognizes the tenuous standing of many of the league's teams. "At this stage of the league we just want to see fans cheering, doesn't matter for whom. That's all we're aiming for."
With funds tight, there's nothing glamorous about the average WPS player's lifestyle. The chartered planes and 5-Star hotels of other leagues are replaced in the WPS world by brutally long bus trips around the Northeast. When the Flash traveled to play the Boston Breakers on July 24, it was an eight-hour trek.
Most of the Flash players live in an apartment complex in Buffalo, so with the combination of road trips, training and their living arrangement, they don't spend much time apart. "It definitely makes us closer," midfielder Yael Averbuch said. "We're around each other so much, we hardly know anybody else in the neighborhood." Seger, who's still getting used to the transition from Sweden, appreciates the close-knit nature of the group. "They've become my second family."
Joe Sahlen is not your typical pro sports franchise owner. He's the fourth-generation owner of Sahlen's, a mom and pop meatpacking company based in Buffalo. In 2009, he hired his daughter Alexandra to run the Buffalo Flash, a minor league soccer franchise. Despite her executive position, Alexandra played for the Flash, while her husband, Aaran Lines, coached the team. In 2010, the club moved from the minor leagues to the WPS. Lines still coaches the team and Alexandra still plays, though she has surrendered her front office responsibilities.
WPS Commissioner Anne-Marie Eileraas believes this family environment has helped make the Flash so successful in their inaugural season. "[They] had an existing business and operational infrastructure that enabled the team to ramp up quickly," Eileraas said. "Of course, it doesn't hurt that they chose players exceptionally well."
While Sahlen may not fit the profile of the typical tycoon owner, there's no question that he's heavily invested in his team. He built a 200,000-square foot, state-of-the-art indoor training facility -- by far the best of its kind around the league. When every WPS owner was offered tickets to this year's World Cup final, Sahlen was the only one to decline, deciding instead to drive down to New Jersey in his RV to watch the Flash.
It was Sahlen's decision to bring in some of the world's best players, a move that's paid immediate dividends. When the Pride folded, he immediately brought Riley and Sinclair out to Buffalo and signed them. Because the Flash were an expansion team, they received the 1st overall pick in January's WPS draft, where Sahlen chose Morgan. Weeks after, Marta decided to join her old Pride teammates in Buffalo and just like that, the Flash had arrived.
Marta, who's been called "Pele in a skirt" by analysts, is the alpha dog on the Flash. The Brazilian superstar is in complete control every time she touches the ball and belies her 5-foot-4 frame with a physicality gained from scrimmaging alongside the best Brazilian male players.
"She's just too quick," Riley said. "The moves she has, nobody else can master."
Marta has won FIFA World Player of the Year five times and the WPS MVP the last two years, her only two in the league."It's her professional attitude in training every day that people don't get to see," Averbuch said. "Everyone knows how talented she is, but she really works at the nuances of the game and we learn from that."
If Marta is Batman, then Sinclair, a soft-spoken forward from Burnaby, British Columbia, is as good a Robin as there is in women's soccer. The 28-year-old Sinclair leads the WPS in assists scored and is tied with Marta for the lead in goals scored, even though she's played fewer games than most of her competition because of the World Cup. Because of her stellar international career, Sinclair has some fans on her own team. "I've looked up to her for many years," Morgan said. "It's pretty cool now that I'm playing with her."
Sinclair is not a rah-rah leader. She doesn't give inspirational speeches at halftime or lead the charge onto the field, choosing instead to lead by example. "Our young players have all played in big games before," the humble Sinclair said. "I don't think they look at me for guidance."
Riley, Sinclair's teammate for the last two seasons, disagrees. "Marta and Christine are the best two players in the world. They're legends, everything they do, we learn from."
The third piece of the Flash's high-powered trio nearly won the U.S. the World Cup three weeks ago, yet doesn't always start for her club team. The first-overall pick in January's WPS draft, California native Morgan is on a fast track to stardom. She's tied for fifth place in the WPS in goals scored, despite only playing 689 minutes, easily the lowest number of any player in the top 10.
Morgan admits to being "heartbroken" after the U.S. fell to Japan in penalty kicks, but she has rebounded quickly. "For how little practice time we've had, this team is so close," Morgan said. "I definitely want to represent the WPS well. This league has so many high quality players that deserve praise."
Due in part to her breathtaking goal in the World Cup final, Morgan has become the Flash's resident rock star. Inundated with requests from fans while juggling PR appearances and her responsibilities to the Flash, Morgan has barely had time to think. "The great thing about playing in the World Cup is people begin to start paying attention to certain players," Morgan said. "I want to promote women's soccer in the United States, anything and everything I can do to help it grow."
Despite the circus-like frenzy that has enveloped his rookie phenom, Flash coach Lines isn't worried about it affecting her play. "Alex is getting a ton of attention at the moment but it really is due to what she's accomplished on the field," Lines said. "She's got a good head on her shoulders, she'll be fine."
To capitalize on the wave of World Cup publicity, many of the Flash players have taken to social media as a way to expand their profile. Everybody on the team besides Marta is on Twitter; Morgan is the most notable example, gaining nearly 200,000 followers since her World Cup exploits. Averbuch writes a blog for The New York Times soccer section on her experiences as a WPS player. New Zealand native Riley has been the most proactive, filming practices and road trips for the fans' benefit. "We have to sell ourselves for the league to become more successful," Riley said. "Go the extra yard to make people interested in us. We want them to be fans of us personally, not just the sport."
While the fame is nice, it means little to the players if fans don't show up to the games. Since the American players returned from Germany, the Flash has played six times. Its matches in Boston, Piscataway and Boca Raton brought out the biggest crowds of the year for those stadiums, 6,022, 5,065 and 4,011 respectively. The Boca Raton attendance number is especially striking as Florida-based magicJack has had trouble drawing even a thousand fans to their games. The first Flash home game after the Cup, where Morgan and magicJack stars Abby Wambach and Hope Solo were honored, drew 15,404 fans a record-breaking number for women's professional soccer.
"The biggest thing is just getting fans out to the game for the first time," Averbuch said. "Once they see the quality soccer being played they should come back."
Even with these impressive figures, there's no celebrating among WPS executives. The owners of the six franchises meet every few weeks to discuss the state of the league and sources say that the league's plans for next year are still up in the air. With the remarkable success of the first-year Flash, the hope is the WPS can expand but nothing is definite.
Back in Piscataway, the die-hard Sky Blue FC fans are getting restless. They're outnumbered by a group they haven't seen before, young girls and middle-aged men who spend somewhere close to half the game trying to get the attention of Marta and Alex Morgan.
Marta weaves through the box and scores, Sinclair follows with her own goal minutes later. After Morgan lofts a beautiful strike into the back of the net, one Sky Blue loyalist has had enough. "This team is too good. It's not fair; they have an embarrassment of riches."
Because of a crush of fans waiting for autographs after the game, most of the Flash players were quickly ushered onto the team bus after the game. While not standard operating procedure for the WPS, this may be the best sign yet that the league is here to stay.