The last time the Western NY Flash played in an NWSL Championship game, it was 2013. Abby Wambach, Carli Lloyd, and a 19 year-old Sam Kerr were among the team's stars. The Flash lost to Portland in that game, and Western NY hasn't been back to the playoffs since.
Until this year. On Sunday, the Flash will take the field at Houston's BBVA Compass Stadium as the first fourth place team to ever make it to an NWSL final. Western NY's opponent will be the Washington Spirit. Unlike the Flash, a once great team trying to get there again, the Spirit has never been here before. Not to a championship game, not ever.
Washington's had two chances to make it to a final, earning postseason berths in both 2014 and 2015, but the Spirit couldn't win either of those semifinals, losing to Seattle both times. This year, though, there is no Seattle, and the Spirit's slow improvement -- from a last place finish in 2013 to two consecutive years as the fourth place team -- has reached its peak. Washington finished the 2016 season second on the table, only losing out on the NWSL Shield on the final weekend of the season, and then won last weekend's semifinal against Chicago. That -- a dramatic 2-1 extra time win for the Spirit -- was the first-ever postseason victory for the team that just three years ago boasted the NWSL's worst record.
Western NY's already managed to get a lot further than anyone expected them to. Coming into this season, the Flash was a young team looking to rebuild with a new coach and a ton of new faces. Maybe before there was an argument to be made that part of how Western NY snuck into the postseason was through an imbalanced schedule -- the Flash played Boston four times in 2016, but with last weekend's win in Portland, they may have finally cemented themselves as the real deal. The problem the Flash will face on Sunday is that head coach Paul Riley, credited as the primary reason Western NY got so good so fast, won't be on the sidelines. Riley will be at the game, but after being ejected from last weekend's semifinal, he'll have to watch from the stands.
Washington has also had a dream season, despite losing out on the NWSL Shield. Only, they'll have their head coach with them, and Jim Gabarra's experience and relative calm will go a long way for a team that's playing in its biggest game ever.
History: The Spirit and Flash met twice this season, once in April and once in early September. The Spirit won the first game, in Western NY, 3-0 and the second, in Washington, was a 1-1 draw. All time, Washington is 3-5-3 against the Flash.
Key players: Crystal Dunn and Ali Krieger (Washington), Jessica McDonald, and Lynn Williams (Western NY)
Dunn has had a quiet 2016, especially when compared to her MVP winning season a year ago. However, she's made up for her lack of scoring with what she's done off the ball and her speed, on a Flash defense that's still relatively young.
Krieger is one of just three Spirit players left from the 2013 season (Tori Huster and Diana Matheson are the other two), and against a potent offense, her experience will be key. She's not afraid to get forward, which is something that could come in handy for the Spirit, especially if they fall behind.
Western NY led the league in scoring this season, and McDonald and Williams were most of the reason why. The two combined for 21 of the Flash's 40 goals. Williams won both the 2016 MVP award and this season's Golden Boot, and scored twice, including the game-winner, in Western NY's 4-3 win over Portland in last weekend's semifinal. In addition to her scoring ability, McDonald's long throw-ins add another dangerous dimension to the Flash's attack. The Thorns couldn't figure out how to combat that, and Washington could have a similar problem.
Key matchup: McDonald and Williams vs. the Spirit defense
McDonald and Williams established themselves as the league's most dangerous scoring duo thanks to those 21 goals. The Spirit's defense will have to find an answer, both for Williams' speed and those long throw-ins of McDonald's that helped seal the Flash's semifinal victory.
The Spirit will need to find a way to shut down that offensive tandem down. It's not an easy task by any means, but if Washington can do it, Western NY doesn't have much else in the way of a serious offensive threat. If they can't, it's going to be a long night for Kelsey Wys and the Spirit back line.
I'm terrible at predictions but let's go for it anyway: Just like both semifinals, this one's going to have very little defense and need to extra time to determine a winner. Eventually, 5-4 Flash.
How to watch: Flash vs. Spirit, 2016 NWSL championship
Match date/time: Sunday, Oct. 9, 5 p.m. ET
Venue: BBVA Compass Stadium, Houston, Texas
TV: Fox Sports 1
Online: Fox Sports Go, Fox Soccer 2 Go