|ESPN.com: News & Opinion||[Print without images]|
ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- This summer, Japan lifted the Women's World Cup trophy. On Saturday, it was the United States' turn.
And Brazil's turn. And New Zealand's turn. And Sweden's. And Canada's. Maybe even a wayward squirrel's.
The Western New York Flash, its players gathered from around the globe, combined to have the best record in the WPS regular season and earn home field for the league final. That collection of talent and home-field spirit -- a WPS final-record crowd of 10,461 -- was just enough to give the Flash the league title, winning a penalty kick shootout 5-4 after a 1-1 tie with the Philadelphia Independence.
"The most unique thing is having so many star players and having such good personalities," midfielder Caroline Seger (Sweden) said. "You know how easy it is for players like that to be divas and not be able to handle stuff around the team. But that's exactly what's special about this team. People like Marta and [Christine] Sinclair are just normal human beings and really good for the team spirit. They fit in perfectly."
The players weren't complete strangers when coach Aaran Lines -- himself a New Zealander -- and technical director Emma Hayes (England) assembled the expansion team's roster. The WPS defender of the year, Whitney Engen, and league goalkeeper of the Year Ashlyn Harris played together at North Carolina. Several Flash players had played for last year's champion, FC Gold Pride, which folded in the offseason.
That group of Gold Pride alumni include a pair of Canadians who put the Flash in front with a well-worked goal in the 64th minute. Defender Candace Chapman saw Sinclair rushing ahead and lofted the ball over the midfield, where battles had been fierce all game. Sinclair settled and finished.
"I've played with Sinc for over 10 years, and we kind of have that connection," Chapman said.
The goal opened up a game that had been physical and testy. In the first half, each team managed only one shot. No one had much room to move, except for a wayward squirrel that found its way in front of the Philadelphia goal. Play was held up for several minutes until stadium staff brought a box onto the field to capture the animal, which seemed confused by the artificial surface.
"The first half was kind of a stalemate," said Engen. "Neither team asserted themselves as the dominant team."<./p>
The Independence, beaten 4-0 by Gold Pride in last year's final, struggled to get its offense moving. Veronica Boquete, the Michelle Akers Player of the Year for the WPS, had a few darting runs but never threatened the goal. Forward Tasha Kai took a nasty elbow to the face in the first half, prompting a long stoppage that was roughly equal in length to the squirrel-related stoppage. She eventually left the game with a severe limp.
Philadelphia tied the game in the 88th minute with a scrambling goal. Kia McNeill, who did well defending against the potent Flash offense all afternoon, fed the ball to Danesha Adams in the middle of the box. Adams' shot hit the post and Harris. Amy Rodriguez pounced on the rebound and put it past Harris to force extra time.
In those additional minutes, Philadelphia gained the better of play for the first time.
"Throughout overtime, I thought we looked more likely to score," Independence coach Paul Riley said. "You don't put your chances away, you pay the price. If someone had told me we'd have more chances than the Flash and lose the game, I'd be shocked."
Philadelphia goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart made a spectacular save in the final minutes of the game and seemed poised to make another when the game moved to the penalty spot. But the Flash's mix of World Cup stars and solid players came through. All five shooters -- Brazilian superstar Marta, Sinclair, Seger and Americans McCall Zerboni and Yael Averbuch -- calmly converted their shots.
Then, with the crowd rattling the stands at Sahlen's Stadium, Harris came up with the game-winning save on Laura del Rio's shot. College teammate Engen, who was due to take the next shot if the shootout went to sudden death, was quite relieved.
Engen took particular pride in the team's depth.
"The reason why we won this championship today was because we were able to start every single [non-goalkeeper] on our roster in at least one game," she said.
That included newcomer Rebecca Moros, who started the season with magicJack but moved to Western New York and started several games, including the final.
"The quality of the individuals is something special," Moros said. "I've never played with such skillful players, such intelligent players. Everyone on this team was really team-first. This team welcomed me, and I've had a great time since I've been here."
That team can look back on a phenomenal summer in which Sinclair, Chapman, Seger, Marta, Alex Morgan (U.S.) and Ail Riley (New Zealand) all took part in the World Cup and returned to a club that lost only twice.
"It took a little bit of regrouping [after the Cup]," Riley said. "People came back at different times. When we had everybody back at full strength, we were so determined. Our priority shifted back to WPS, and that's why we won the championship."