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Where EAST meets the Northwest

FLASH FULLBACK. Abby Erceg (#6, right) of the Western New York Flash runs alongside Allie Long (#10, left) of the Portland Thorns during a regular-season National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) match held at Providence Park. Erceg and the Flash defeated the Thorns in a NWSL playoff match, then went on to win the NWSL championship by beating the Washington Spirit. (AR Photo/Jan Landis)

DYNAMIC DEFENDER. Caprice Dydasco of the Washington Spirit dribbles the ball during a 2016 National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) match. Dydasco and the Spirit defeated the Chicago Red Stars to reach the NWSL championship game, but lost that match to the Western New York Flash on penalty kicks after 120 minutes of play ended in a 2-2 draw. (Photo/Chris Colvin, courtesy of the Washington Spirit)

From The Asian Reporter, V26, #21 (November 7, 2016), pages 7 & 13.

NWSL final featured stalwart Asian fullbacks

By Mike Street

Special to The Asian Reporter

This year’s National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) season culminated in an exciting final that featured two of its Asian stars, Abby Erceg of the Western New York Flash and Caprice Dydasco of the Washington Spirit. The stalwart defense provided by these two fullbacks anchored the rise of their teams, which can expect Erceg and Dydasco to provide leadership well into the future.

The Spirit finished in second place during the regular season, just two points behind the league-leading Portland Thorns, who won the NWSL Shield, which is awarded to the club with the best regular-season record. Washington featured a balanced scoring attack, as Estefi Banini led the team with five goals, and three other players tied for second place with four.

One of those three players, Crystal Dunn, led the Spirit in assists with five, a year after leading the team in goals. Team Most Valuable Player Christine Nairn was second with three assists, and Dydasco was third with two. Dydasco started 12 games in 2016, building off six appearances in her rookie season.

A Hawai‘i native, Dydasco played for the UCLA Bruins from 2011 to 2014, winning the 2013 national championship and amassing five goals and 23 assists in her career. Those assists tied Dydasco for eighth in Bruins history, and she led a defense that tied a record in 2014, by logging 19 shutouts in 24 games.

This season, Dydasco helped the Spirit improve on its fourth-place finish in 2015, when the club fell in the first round of the playoffs. In the 2016 playoffs, Washington’s semifinal opponent was the Chicago Red Stars, who had defeated them 3-1 in the regular season’s final game. In the playoffs, however, the Spirit battled Chicago to a 1-1 draw in regulation before Francisca Ordega scored the game-winner in extra time to send Washington to the NWSL championship match.

There, they faced the Western New York Flash, who fell to the Portland Thorns in the final of the NWSL’s inaugural season. The Flash missed the playoffs in 2014 and 2015, so they overhauled their roster. Among other moves, the team traded for Erceg, the New Zealand National Team captain who led Chicago to the 2015 playoffs for the first time in franchise history.

Erceg helped improve the Flash following the 2015 season’s seventh-place finish. Western New York led league play in scoring this season with 40 goals, becoming the third team in NWSL history to average at least two goals per game. Despite this, the Flash nearly missed the playoffs after struggling throughout the month of September.

Goals from Jessica McDonald and Lynn Williams, Western New York’s scoring leaders, gave the Flash a decisive 4-0 win over the Boston Breakers, stamping their post-season ticket. Their semifinal opponent was the first-place Portland Thorns, who had the league’s stingiest defense during league play (only allowing 19 goals) and best home record (8-1-1).

In a classic matchup of an irresistible offense and an immovable defense, the Flash’s offense prevailed. The hometown Thorns scrapped back from a two-goal deficit to send the match into extra time, during which Williams scored twice in the space of six minutes. Erceg and the Flash defense held the Thorns to a single late goal and advanced to the finals.

Western New York’s opponent in the championship match, Washington, had played the Flash twice during the regular season. The Spirit won 3-0 in the Flash’s home opener, while Western New York came back from a 0-1 deficit in their second matchup to earn a 1-1 draw. As the underdog, the Flash would also be without their coach, Paul Riley, who was ejected during the Portland playoff game and therefore was suspended from coaching in the final.

The Flash began the match with a flurry of failed scoring chances, but Washington got on the board first. Fullback Megan Oyster delivered a long ball over the Western New York defense, drawing goalkeeper Sabrina D’Angelo off her line. Dunn sprinted past two Spirit defenders, beat D’Angelo to the ball, and slotted it behind all three players for the game’s first goal.

In a familiar trailing position, the Flash struck back just five minutes later. Williams took the ball down the wing, drawing defenders, while McDonald occupied the defenders on the opposite side of the penalty box. This opened up the middle for Samantha Mewis, who took the pass from Williams, deftly switched feet, and drove the ball past goalkeeper Kelsey Wys to even the score.

Two minutes later, the Spirit suffered another setback when Dydasco went down with an injury and was replaced by Ali Krieger. Dydasco tore a ligament in her knee, a serious injury that requires surgery and extensive rehabilitation in the offseason. Despite losing Dydasco, the Spirit defense didn’t yield another goal in regulation, but Washington couldn’t score, either, so the game went into extra time.

The Spirit scored in the first minute of extra time after Krieger took the ball down the right side of the pitch, just outside the Western New York penalty area. A Flash defender took her down, but not before she delivered the ball to an unmarked Dunn, who placed the ball into the top right corner of the goal.

Washington locked down Western New York for more than 30 minutes, but with just seconds remaining in their season, the Flash finally struck. McDonald crossed the ball to the middle of the box, Wys leapt into a crowd of players to make a play on the ball, and Williams surged higher than the other players, heading in the tying goal.

Neither team scored in the handful of seconds left, leading to the first penalty-kick shootout in NWSL championship history. The Flash took the lead in the first round when Abby Dahlkemper slotted home her shot and D’Angelo stopped Krieger’s attempt. Both teams traded goals in the next round. Then Washington evened the score when McDonald’s shot sailed over the crossbar and Katie Stengel finished her opportunity.

The Flash again took the lead when Williams made her shot and D’Angelo saved another. Mewis could not seal the win on her opportunity when Wys made her only save of the shootout, but D’Angelo had her teammate’s back. Diana Matheson tried to beat D’Angelo on the right side of the goal, but the keeper turned away Matheson’s shot to give Western New York the championship.

In the game of soccer, every member makes vital, if invisible, contributions to the final outcome. Nowhere is this more apparent than on defense, where fullbacks can break up scoring opportunities or feed midfielders who go on to log an assist or a goal. Both Erceg and Dydasco were essential team contributors, and each is expected to continue to add to their team’s success during the NWSL’s fifth season.

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