In hindsight, I should have known the Western New York Flash would win the 2016 NWSL Championship.
It's not that the Flash were clearly the better team when matched against the Washington Spirit. In fact, most people didn't even expect the Flash to play for the championship, let alone actually win it. They snuck into the playoffs at the No. 4 spot thanks to a great string of games late in the season and defeated the Supporters' Shield-winning Portland Thorns in a wild semi-final match that saw nine goals scored over 120 minutes. Their entire presence was sort of... baffling.
But everything about my trip to Houston in October 2016 was baffling.
To be clear, I was thrilled about traveling to Houston for the NWSL Championship. This was my first season as an NWSL fan. I had spent about nine months working for the Orlando Pride as a writer and I was traveling to watch the game with one of my best friends. The outlook was good.
But things started going wrong before we even left Orlando. First, we were trying to leave Florida right as Hurricane Matthew was getting ready to make landfall. We were grateful to be getting out-- we just hoped our flight would be able to take off. Little did we know, that was the least of our concerns. It turned out that my friend's booking hadn't actually gone through. So, he had no airfare to or from Houston.
Hundreds of dollars later, my friend arrived in Houston around the same time I did. We made our way to our Air BnB, which was near the stadium and owned by a delightfully weird woman who was obsessed with her standard poodles (she had a poodle mask that still haunts my friend). We went out to find food that night and learned... Houston restaurants all turn into bars at like 9:00pm.
We settled for Pizza Hut. Our food experience did not improve throughout the trip. When we got into an Uber and asked our driver for food recommendations, he looked at us and said, "Have y'all ever heard of Jack in the Box?" That pretty much sums it up.
In addition to the NWSL Championship, my friend and I also saw an MLS match between the Houston Dynamo and the Colorado Rapids as well as a Liga-MX friendly (because why not?). I'll spare you the details, but it is worth noting that there were some Dash players meeting at the MLS match. We met Denise O'Sullivan and my friend asked her to sign his new Dash baseball cap. Her signature took up the entire brim. Good thing there was no one else there to sign it.
After what felt like a lifetime, the day of the NWSL Championship finally rolled around. The crowd was mostly made up of angry Portland Thorns fans, with some Chicago Red Stars and Washington Spirit fans filling in the rest of the seats. I don't recall seeing a single Western New York Flash fan.
The first fifteen minutes of the game were really exciting. Crystal Dunn scored for the Washington Spirit in the 9th minute. Five minutes later, Sam Mewis equalized for the Flash. We thought we might be in for a repeat of the semi-final match between Portland and New York that ended 5-4. But after that exciting start, the game slowed down and neither side created many goal-scoring chances.
During the match, my friend and I experienced something we were quite used to in Orlando: the USWNT Super Fans. We were surrounded by a bunch of girls who screamed every time Ali Krieger (who was with the Spirit at the time) touched the ball. And I love Krieger, but it was obnoxious. So, my friend and I decided to do the exact same thing for Tori Huster. Just to show the girls around us what they sounded like.
Sometime in the second half, the girl behind us leaned over and asked if we were Tori's friends. We laughed and laughed. Our mission was accomplished.
The game went to extra-time and within seconds, Dunn scored her second goal for the Spirit. As the minutes of extra-time ticked away, it seemed like the Flash's run had finally come to an end. The Spirit were going to win the title.
But it's not over till it's over. Lynn Williams equalized with a wild header in stoppage time that had the whole stadium on their feet. A few minutes later, the whistle was blown and the teams went to penalty kicks.
Ali Krieger's shot for the Spirit was blocked. But then McDonald's shot for the Flash was blocked. The two teams were so evenly matched and the tension in the stadium was palpable. All notions of who "should" win the title seemed to go out the door. Tori Huster missed her shot for the Spirit (of course, after we had adopted her as our new favorite Spirit player). But then Sam Mewis had her shot for the Flash blocked. Diana Matheson, one of the last three original Spirit players, just needed to make her shot to keep the shoot-out going.
But it was saved by Sabrina D'Angelo.
Disbelief rippled through the stadium. The team that snuck into the NWSL playoffs, that had taken down the mighty Portland Thorns, had managed to take down another giant and win their first title. This was a roster full of players whose names we didn't know as well, but we know them all now. Lynn Williams. Jessica McDonald. Sam Mewis. McCall Zerboni. This was the moment they announced themselves as one of the best squads in the league, which is something they still carry with them today.
Once the penalty shootout ended, my friend and I (and half the crowd) charged through BBVA Compass stadium so that we could see the trophy presentation. We watched Paul Riley's team lift the championship trophy, marking the official end to the period in which the Western New York Flash (now the North Carolina Courage) could be considered underdogs. It was a beautiful, albeit bizzare and unpredictable, way to end my first NWSL season. I wouldn't have wanted it any other way.