National Women's Soccer League

NWSL Championship 2016 Preview: Washington Spirit v Western New York Flash

Washington Spirit and Western New York Flash will contest the 2016 NWSL Championship on Sunday, Oct. 9 at 5 p.m. ET at BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston, live on FOX Sports 1

Who will win the 2016 NWSL Championship? In 2015, FC Kansas City beat Seattle Reign FC 1-0 to claim their second straight title, their first being in 2014, a 2-1 win over Seattle. In the inaugural 2013 season, the Western New York Flash hosted Portland Thorns FC at Sahlen’s Stadium in Rochester, New York, with Thorns FC winning 2-0.

Washington Spirit – NWSL Championship Preview

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Washington Spirit midfielder Victoria Huster took a moment this week while talking about where she and her teammates are – the 2016 NWSL Championship Game at BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston – to reflect on where they’d been.

Huster has spent all four years of her NWSL career with the Spirit – including the league’s inaugural year in 2013 when Washington finished at the bottom of the table, marked by a 13-game winless run that still stands as a record.

Looking back on that season, Huster paused to appreciate how far the Spirit have come as they not only made the playoffs for the third straight year, but will be making their first appearance in the NWSL Championship Game after earning the first team’s first playoff victory last week with a 2-1 win after extra time against the Chicago Red Stars.

“I’m very excited for this club to have gone from the first year being a last place team to now fighting for the first and second position this coming weekend,” Huster said in a conference call with reporters on Tuesday.

Now Washington has the chance to earn the first championship in club history, a feat Huster feels she and her teammates would not be in position to accomplish without the chemistry they’ve developed through the years.

“We really respect each other on and off the field,” Huster said. “Our locker room I think is one of the best if not the best in the league and it’s been a joy to play for this group this year. We had a lot of returning players and that always helps morale and your on-field play because you’re more comfortable with those similar players.”

That chemistry was perhaps best exemplified this season when defender and U.S. international Ali Krieger rushed back to the Spirit after the U.S. Women’s National Team was eliminated in the quarterfinals of the 2016 Rio Olympics. She was the first U.S. international to return to play in the league and made it back in time play 90 minutes and help Washington win a makeup game against the Houston Dash on Aug. 18.

“It was something that came from her and her attitude was I want to get back to the team as quick as possible, I want to get back to playing,” Spirit coach Jim Gabarra said.

It’s that kind of camaraderie that Huster says has been a hallmark for Washington throughout the season.

“Ali is a leader on our team and I really respected her decision to come back, regardless of whatever reasoning she had,” Huster said. “I think we definitely do make it a little bit easier for our national team players to come back in because we do have so much fun together.”

Together the Spirit have racked up 12 wins during the regular season – tied with Portland Thorns FC for the most in the league – and spent much of the year with the No. 1 defense in the NWSL before allowing five goals over the last two games and finishing tied for fourth in goals against.

Washington also put together one of the most diversified attacks in the league this season with seven players scoring three goals or more during the regular season – highlighted by midfielder Estefania Banini’s five tallies.

Gabarra also got strong efforts from his midfield trio of Huster (goal, assist), Christine Nairn (3 goals, 3 assists) and Joanna Lohman (4 goals, assist) – as well as forward Crystal Dunn (2 goals, 5 assists).

“I’ve told [Huster], and Nairn and [Lohman] before that I think they’ve really been the reason for most of our success and they’ve gotten better and better as the season’s gone on and they’ve got a really good working relationship with each other,” Gabarra said. “And the sum of their parts is greater than what you [get] if you add them up simply [on their own].”

And it’s that math that Gabarra is hoping adds up Sunday when his squad takes the field against the Western New York Flash for the championship in Houston.

WNY Flash – NWSL Championship Preview

Western New York Flash

To hear Abby Erceg tell it, the Western New York Flash didn’t have much choice but to get better this season. As she puts it, “there was nowhere for us to go but up.”

With a win Sunday against the Washington Spirit in the NWSL Championship Game at BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston, there won’t be any further to go. They will have arrived – as champions of the NWSL.

Erceg – who came to Western New York from the Chicago Red Stars in an offseason trade – played all 120 minutes of a dramatic 4-3 victory after extra time over 2016 NWSL Shield winners Portland Thorns FC. The win sealed the Flash a place in the NWSL title game for the second time in their history – although no one on the current roster was a member of that squad.

With so much turnover on the roster over the past few seasons – as well as the relatively late hire of Paul Riley as coach in February – expectations were not terribly high at the start of the 2016 campaign.

“It was easy for us to head into the season knowing there was only one place for us to go,” Erceg said. “Paul came in and developed this belief within the group that we could do great things and he got us all believing in it.”

With seven total selections inside the first 15 picks of the 2015 and 2016 NWSL College Drafts, there was an anticipation that that the Flash could improve upon their seventh place finish last season. But after three losses in their first five games, Western New York didn’t seem destined for a place in the NWSL Championship Game before they reeled off a 6-1-0 home stand from May 21 to July 9 and firmly put themselves in contention for the playoffs.

“Each game we chipped away and we did what we needed to do,” Erceg said. “[You get] results and the confidence builds and you get into these games knowing what you’ve done throughout the year and knowing how far you’ve come and believing in each other and building that trust throughout the season.”

Each game during that stretch the Flash found ways to win as their lethal offense started to take shape and ultimately led to fantastic seasons from forward Lynn Williams (11 goals, 5 assists) and Jessica McDonald (10 goals, 7 assists).

Midfielders Samantha Mewis (5 goals, 2 assists) and rookie Makenzy Doniak (3 goals, 4 assists) also made telling contributions as did the 5-10 Erceg (2 goals, assist) – who served as the target for McDonald’s long throw-ins from which the Flash scored their first three goals in the NWSL semifinal against the Thorns.

“Obviously, we’ve done a lot of work behind the scenes working on our game plan and finding out what works for us,” Erceg said. “Sometimes it’s not pretty and sometimes it is and we’ve just made sure we’ve done what we needed to do and it’s been a really fun season.”

Fun could be an understatement come Sunday in Houston. But despite the pressure surrounding any championship match, Erceg and her teammates aren’t forgetting to enjoy the moment.

“The girls are really excited, I’m really excited as well,” Erceg said. “These games don’t come around very often, so it’s really exciting for us and we’re happy just to be in there and do our thing for everyone who’s watching, so that’s going to be great.”

And after emerging with a road playoff victory in the deafening atmosphere of Providence Park, where Riley said he could barely get instructions out to his players let alone have the players talk with each other – the first-year Flash coach thinks the semifinal win is just the latest building block as Western New York looks for its first NWSL championship and a more permanent place among the league’s elite for years to come.

“They’re a young group to experience that and I think now they’ve been through that 90 minutes and another 30 minutes [in extra time] – after [coming through that] it’s something they’re all embracing I think will help them down the road, obviously this weekend, and down the future.”

The Washington Spirit and Western New York Flash will meet in the championship game to see who will be crowned the 2016 NWSL Champion, live on FOX Sports 1, on Sunday, Oct. 9 at 5 p.m. ET at BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston, Texas.

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