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NWSL Week 14 preview: Western NY try to claw back to relevance

Nobody picked Western NY to be a playoff team – let alone win the Shield. It’s been a long time since the Flash looked like the dominant team they’d once been, and with a new coach and a lot of turnover, this year looked like one for rebuilding. But now, with seven games to go, Western NY is just a single point off the pace of both the first-place Thorns and the Spirit.

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In the fall of 1998, I was 16 years old, Starting my junior year of high school, all clad in Kurt Cobain T-shirts, an Operation Ivy hoodie and the widest-leg JNCOs my allowance money could buy. MTV still played music videos and the radio still existed as a thing that wasn't just for the old folks. That November, a video showed up on MTV of a guy singing and dancing around a mall in an inside out Mickey Mouse shirt. It's by some band no one had ever heard of called The New Radicals.

I rode my bike to The Wiz and bought the CD, dropping its yellow booklet into the appropriately alphabetized section of my 500 CD binder and the disc into my five CD changer. "You Get What You Give" was my jam. It was everyone's jam. Catchy and fun and the perfect song for walking home from school or turning up on the radio in your friend's parents' car that you, uh, borrowed to go buy cigarettes at the gas station that doesn't check IDs.

But one day, "You Get What You Give" is no longer awesome. It's January and it's been on the radio 5,000 times and it's 1999 now, man. Wearing your inside out Mickey Mouse shirt to the mall is so last year. You still have the CD, but it's disc five in the changer, and if you're there, it's because you fell asleep with the CD player on.

It was 2013 when the Western NY Flash landed in that same forgotten fifth slot, the three championships in three years in three leagues line that you were once pretty hyped about now just kind of annoying.

That was the year that Western NY was looking to turn those threes into fours. Four championships in four years in four different leagues. The Flash had already won the inaugural NWSL Shield, and a meeting with Portland in the title game was all that stood between Western NY and making that a reality.

The Flash didn't win that 2013 championship game though, losing 2-0 to a 10-player Thorns team that was stacked with talent that had coincidentally once been a part of those championship teams in Rochester. And not winning that trophy didn't just put a sad period on the end of what had been an otherwise excellent season for the Flash, it also sent the team into the beginnings of a downward spiral that's lasted until, well, now.

Western NY hasn't just been unable to win another title in the years since; the Flash has struggled to even make it to the postseason. In both 2014 and 2015, this once unbeatable team finished in seventh. Ahead of this season, longtime head coach Aaran Lines stepped down, and come draft day in January, the Flash still hadn't named a replacement. And when they finally did name someone to take over the reins in Rochester, it came with some worry.

Paul Riley had once been regarded as one of the best coaches in the women's game. He'd not only taken the expansion Philadelphia Independence to the brink of a title in two consecutive seasons, but also revived the careers of struggling players like Amy Rodriguez and Tasha Kai, turning one-time USWNT greats who'd fallen on hard times back into stars. Riley had also turned previous unknowns into household names in the WoSo world, with players like Jen Buczkowski and Leigh Ann Brown earning their places on the all-time underrated list starting with what they did in Philly. At one point, Riley's name was even tossed around as a possible replacement for Pia Sundhage.

When Riley landed in Portland in 2014, he still had some of that promise. But after two disappointing seasons with the Thorns, the shine had worn off, and by the time Portland decided not to renew his contract after the 2015 season, Riley looked like nothing more than a man who badly needed someone to come and Paul Riley his coaching career.

That Riley had failed so badly in Portland -- with a team stacked with star players -- made his arrival in Western NY all the more concerning. The Flash, unlike the Thorns, didn't have the big names, the MLS ties, or the nice stadium. They didn't draw the crowds Portland did. This was an organization that at one point couldn't even figure out how to not play music during the games or broadcast its web stream on anything other than cameras that were outdated even when the New Radicals shot their video.

Almost immediately, it seemed like all those fears about Riley would come true, too. Western NY won just two of its first five games, hanging out in the bottom half of the table through the first month and a half of the season. But then, something changed for Western NY. The Flash started scoring goals -- and lots of them. After scoring in just two of those first five games, Western NY scored 17 times in the next five games (four wins), including a 5-2 win over Sky Blue FC and 4-0 and 7-1 wins over the Breakers. In fact, the Flash has lost just once since mid-May and climbed all the way into third.

That Riley has found a team that fits his style better is certainly part of the equation. His Portland teams were stacked -- Alex Morgan, Tobin Heath, Christine Sinclair, Nadine Angerer, Allie Long, Rachel Van Hollebeke and Steph Catley all played for Portland last season. But that's also never been Riley's style. With the Flash, he has the opportunity to mold a team -- and its players -- the way he did back in the Independence days.

Western NY has just three players heading to Rio for the Olympics (a fourth, Sam Mewis, is an alternate for the USWNT), leaving a solid core behind to finish out the month of July, plus whatever time it takes for all those players to return following the Olympic break.

Among those players is Jess McDonald. McDonald is on her fifth team in four seasons, having previously played for Chicago, Seattle, Portland and Houston. She had her best professional season in 2014, when, playing for Riley, she scored 11 goals for the Thorns. Reunited with her old head coach, McDonald is on pace to have another big year. She's already got six goals and a team-high five assists.

Only one player has scored more goals for Western NY this season than McDonald, and that's Lynn Williams. She was selected by Western NY in the 2015 draft, and though she had a relatively successful rookie season, it's been under Riley that the second-year forward has flourished, scoring seven goals so far this season. She's currently not only the Flash's leading scorer, but also the league's. McDonald is second on the all-NWSL list.

But it's not just offensively that Western NY has come alive. The Flash has also improved defensively as the season has progressed. Jaelene Hinkle was another one of the Flash's 2015 draft picks, and has become a key part of the Western NY back line. And as Alanna Kennedy and Abby Erceg head to Rio with Australia and New Zealand respectively, Courtney Niemiec has stepped in to fill the defensive hole. Niemiec is another player who first played for Riley with the Thorns, spending 2014 and 2015 with Portland.

The Flash now has seven games to go, including this weekend's meeting with FC Kansas City. The Blues have struggled this season, currently sitting in eighth and with the playoffs looking increasingly like a long shot. With the Thorns idle, a win against the two-time defending champions combined with a Washington loss would put the Flash atop the table with a week to go before the Olympic break. Not bad for a team that started the season looking almost as hopeless as the Breakers.

And maybe that's the thing. About Riley, and about Western NY. Like listening to that New Radicals CD now. "You Get What You Give" is still just as fun as it was when I was 16. Maybe sometimes, you need to just not hear those songs for a while to remember how good they can be.

Western NY Flash vs. FC Kansas City, 7 p.m., Rhinos Stadium (YouTube)
Sky Blue FC vs. Washington Spirit, 7 p.m., Yurcak Field (YouTube)
Chicago Red Stars vs. Houston Dash, 8 p.m., Toyota Park (YouTube)
Seattle Reign vs. Orlando Pride, 10 p.m., Memorial Stadium (YouTube)