North Carolina Courage joining NWSL signals long-term ambition for young league

The North Carolina Courage, which will join the NWSL for 2017, unveiled the team's crest and name on Monday.

The National Women’s Soccer League is losing one club as it gains another.

The Western New York Flash have been sold and are relocating to North Carolina as the Courage, the NWSL announced Monday. North Carolina FC in the North American Soccer League acquired the rights to the reigning champion Flash and will have the team compete as the Courage this season in Cary, North Carolina.

The move is a bit sudden – it was only last month that the Carolina RailHawks announced they would rebrand as North Carolina FC and bid for teams in both Major League Soccer and the NWSL. But it’s a move that looks like it’s in the best interest of the NWSL, now entering its fifth season.

It would be easy to look at the end of the Flash as a bad sign for women’s soccer, especially coming off the team’s championship win last season. After all, the Flash have been one of the longest-running professional women’s soccer teams in the U.S. and pushed through the uncertainly of women’s club play to win championships in four different leagues: W-League (2010), WPS (2011), WPSL Elite (2012) and NWSL (2016).

But the relocation of the Flash to North Carolina instead signals the NWSL’s growing expectations for minimum standards and a higher demand for what a professional women’s club should look like going forward.

“Unfortunately, it has become apparent that the Western New York market is not the right fit for the NWSL and the future direction of the league,” the Flash said in a statement Monday. “We know that the North Carolina market will provide what the players deserve and we are excited to see the team continue to compete at the highest level.”

While NWSL expansion franchises so far have exclusively gone to strong organizations with existing MLS teams, the lingering question had been how the NWSL could raise the standards of its existing clubs: some are better-positioned than others for success, and there’s still too much disparity between the haves and have-nots. The Flash, for all the things they offered — like a fully-controlled soccer-specific stadium — were still well behind the MLS-backed franchises in some ways. The Courage are not backed by an MLS club, but by a second-tier NASL club, meaning they can still share resources, like existing staff and facilities.

Goalkeeper Sabrina D’Angelo of the Western New York Flash celebrates with her teammates after defeating the Washington Spirit in a shootout during the 2016 NWSL Championship at BBVA Compass Stadium on October 9, 2016 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
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The Flash had their share of operational setbacks. While the team played in Rochester, New York, the team’s practice facilities were near Buffalo, where the players tended to live, a 1.5-hour drive away. That left the club disjointed from the community it needed to attend matches. The Flash also made headlines when they played a match on a tiny non-regulation field that upset players and fans alike.

“They’ve given so much, but they don’t have this type of soccer complex,” NWSL commissioner Jeff Plush said, from North Carolina, of the Flash. “So when we look at this situation – it’s a fantastic city, great soccer tradition, and a world-class facility – it’s something we’re really excited about. It’s about timing and the evolution (of the league).”

The Flash also struggled to maintain consistent attendance – they saw their average attendance drop in 2015 even as every other club saw a boost from the Women’s World Cup and they sat near the bottom in the league. They rebounded last season, in part due to their on-field success, finishing fifth in the league with just below a 4,000 per-game average. The Courage and owner Stephen Malik have made it clear their sights are set higher.

When the NWSL started, the focus was almost entirely on the short term. No American women’s professional soccer league had ever lasted longer than three years. But now, with the 10-team NWSL going into its fifth year, the league can – and should – begin to think longer term about what success looks like. Undoubtedly, that includes growth and better standards across the board. As Plush put it at the announcement ceremony on Monday: “We’ve earned the right to be very ambitious about what our future looks like.”

NWSL commissioner Jeff Plush hailed the addition of the North Carolina Courage to the league. (Photo courtesy of NWSL)
(courtesy of NWSL)/Brad Smith/

The transition from the Flash to the Courage happened quickly and is still in the works. Players under contract with WNY will move to North Carolina, including breakout star Lynn Williams, who led the Flash to their title and has made an impression in recent call-ups for the U.S. women’s national team. Paul Riley, who coached the Flash to the title, has met with the Courage front office, but is only a “candidate” for the manager job now. The NWSL college draft is Thursday and the season starts in April.

The Courage don’t have much time to figure out some key decisions, but again, for the NWSL, this move was never really about what happens in the short term.

“These are exciting times. We embark on our fifth year and no (American) women’s league has ever done that,” Plush said. “We’re thrilled about where we’re going. There’s certainly always more to do, more to aspire to — we want to build a league of permanence, a league that’s here for the next 20 years.”

As bittersweet as it is for fans in Western New York, moving the Flash to North Carolina is one step closer to that.