By Dean Bogart
On Jan. 9, the reigning National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) champions WNY Flash were sold. Joe Sahlen, the team’s owner, sold the club to Steve Malik, owner of North Carolina FC. The Flash were one of Buffalo’s most decorated professional sports teams, racking in five league championships since their creation as the Buffalo Flash in 2009. In their final season, the Flash’s average per game attendance was roughly 3,800.
Despite the crowds and freshly earned title, nothing was enough to convince the Sahlen family to keep the Flash in Western New York.
“Unfortunately, it has become apparent that the Western New York market is not the right fit for [the] NWSL,” the Sahlen family said in a statement. “We know that North Carolina will provide what the players deserve.… We would like to thank the Western New York area for welcoming us into their community… It has been an incredible journey and we will cherish these memories for a lifetime.”
The WNY Flash, now the North Carolina Courage, took all players and coaching staff along with them to Cary, N.C.
What is left behind is one of the most influential soccer programs in Western New York, the Flash Academy.
Founded in the summer of 2012, the Flash Academy is a youth soccer organization consisting of over 30 coaches, trainers, and administrators, as well as hundreds of youth players. The Academy allows players to develop their skill set and knowledge of the game, and to play at a national level. Players also are able to train with coaches who have professional and international experience.
Regan Steele, an assistant coach for the men’s soccer program at Canisius, is one of the coaches at Flash Academy. He has coached multiple youth teams in his tenure with the Academy.
Upon the announcement of the WNY Flash leaving, the Sahlen family said in their statement that they want to continue to grow soccer in the Western New York area and are wholly committed to the Academy.
For a city whose main sports are football and hockey, what is the significance of having an Academy solely for soccer? The mission is to develop skilled athletes that can perform and succeed at collegiate and professional levels. The Academy currently accepts girls from age 7 to 19 and boys from age 7 to 12. In the future, boys will have the same age range.
Not only does the Academy focus on its own players, but it also reaches out to various youth clubs across the region. The Academy offers resources that aid the other clubs with the goals of developing young players, as well as improving coaching and quality of resources for youth soccer across New York state and beyond. Players come from places all over the region, including Buffalo, Rochester, Ontario and the Southern Tier of New York.
During the most recent signing period for high school soccer players, 23 girls from the Flash Academy signed Letters of Intent to play at either a Division I or II school. 10 others, of various ages, were invited by U.S. Soccer to join development camps, all earning the possibly to represent the United States at the international level.
One notable player who graduated from the Academy in 2016 is Canisius’ Alana Rossi. The freshman goalkeeper from Fonthill, Ontario played 17 games this past season, recording five clean sheets in her debut season with the Griffs. Rossi joined the Academy early in 2016, going on to have an undefeated season, along with earning a State Cup.
“I know the Academy increased my skill level and ability to play,” stated Rossi. “The Academy helped me follow my dreams of playing Division I soccer. The showcase tournaments helped with my identification with colleges.”
Rossi made the 44-mile commute from Fonthill to train at Sahlen’s Sport Park in Elma, N.Y. four times a week.
“I think [the Academy] is very important because we looked up to the professional players and strived to be like them,” Rossi said.
Rob Ferguson, the Academy’s Director of Coaching, has worked at the Academy for just under one year. Ferguson was an Executive Director at Lonestar Soccer Club in Austin, Texas, from 2008-2015, while being the head coach of both the men and women’s teams at Huston-Tillotson University, also in Austin.
Ferguson and his wife, Kelsey, arrived in Buffalo after she was offered an assistant coaching position for Buffalo State’s women’s soccer team. Rob quickly became attracted to the Flash Academy, joining the organization shortly thereafter.
“Rossi was actually at the first training session I ever held for the Academy,” Ferguson said. “It was the under-18 team; she was on the under-17 team at the time, but she was training that day.”
Rob is in his sixteenth year of coaching and stated that his favorite part has been able to influence lives of the kids in and beyond soccer.
“Unfortunately, when you do it for so long, you’ll start being invited to weddings and christenings of people you coached 10 years ago,” Ferguson joked. “But that’s pretty cool because that shows you’ve had that impact on those players beyond their soccer careers.
“[The Academy] is critically important to the development of high-level soccer players in this area. There has been a horrible kind of a gulf from the Western New York area in producing high-level soccer players that have been able to play in top colleges across the country.”
Being associated with the Flash, Ferguson understands why the Flash picked up shop and left for North Carolina.
“From my perspective of Director of Coaching, it probably changes things for the better,” he said. “It was awesome that the kids of the club had that pro team to get out and watch… There was a lot to gain from it.”
Ferguson pointed out that, because the team played their games in Rochester, it was difficult for players from the Academy to watch their games.
With the departure of the Flash, Ferguson argues that more time, resources, and energy can be directed towards the Academy for its growth and expansion. Having previously worked at Lonestar, he expects a huge growth in size for the Academy. Although there are a lot of bridges to be crossed, he stated that, in five years, they should have anywhere between 40 to 60 teams.
The WNY Academy has been and always will be an important part of soccer in Buffalo and all over the continent for many years. The Academy will continue to breed collegiate and professional athletes for as long as it exists.
The Flash Academy is a program that has proven it can produce high-level players and help players achieve their dreams. Every professional you see on television was, at one point, a kid with a big dream. Joe Sahlen and his family kept the Academy intact for two major reasons: for the community and for the players.