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Friday, August 5, 2011
WPS playoff race hits critical stage


With just two or three games remaining for each of the six teams in Women's Professional Soccer, the playoff races are more competitive than they have been in the league's three-year history. First place -- and an automatic berth to host the final -- is still up for grabs this late in the season. Three teams are jockeying for the final two playoff spots. Here's how each team looks heading toward the playoffs, which begin Aug. 17.

Western New York Flash (10-2-3, 33 points)

At the beginning of the season, it looked like the Flash would run away and hide at the top of the table, much like the Los Angeles Sol and FC Gold Pride were able to do in 2009 and 2010. But that hasn't been the case. While the Flash have certainly impressed for most of the season, two losses during the World Cup are their only blemishes, allowing the Independence to have a shot at the top spot.

The Flash boast one of the most star-studded offenses in women's club soccer. Two-time league MVP Marta and MVP-candidate Christine Sinclair and World Cup hero Alex Morgan. Swedish captain Caroline Seger and June Player of the Month McCall Zerboni lead the way in midfield. Unsurprisingly, the Flash lead the league in goals with 32.

Scary stat: In two years together with FC Gold Pride and now the Flash, Marta and Sinclair have lost only three times when they've both appeared in the match. The last time was in June 2010. With no more international duty this season, they'll both be on the field for the Flash's final three games. In two years together, they've combined to score 44 goals.

Philadelphia Independence (10-3-3, 33 points)

The Independence have just two games left, and neither are against the Flash, so they'll need Western New York to slip up in order to host the title game. But their strong play during the World Cup has guaranteed them a finish no lower than second. Tasha Kai was a scoring machine for Philadelphia during the World Cup and MVP-candidate Veronica Boquete has tallied five goals and four assists in just nine games.

The Independence also have the best defense in the league, surrendering just 15 goals in 16 games. That gives them a slight advantage over the Flash on the defensive side of the field.

Scary stat: The Independence are 8-0-1 when Boquete appears in a match and have been red hot since getting her into their lineup in the middle of the season. Their only loss since May came when she was forced to miss a match with an injury on July 23. Their past three wins have all been by the score of 1-0 with Boquete netting the second-half, game-winning goal in each match.

magicJack (7-6-2, 22 points)

The Florida-based side's off-the-field issues are mounting, but on the pitch it appears to have righted a shaky ship and is in the driver's seat for a third-place finish. The magicJack need one point in their next three games to clinch third place and a home playoff game. The squad, comprised of mostly U.S. national team players -- most notably player-coach Abby Wambach -- struggled during and immediately after the World Cup, but turned things around with back-to-back wins over fellow playoff contenders Boston and Sky Blue FC this past week.

Off the field, owner Dan Borislow is suing the league after WPS filed papers to begin terminating his ownership. A grievance filed against him by the players' union for his treatment of the players is another headache for the team to deal with as it tries to make the playoffs. It has even been deducted a point in the standings and stripped of draft picks for noncompliance with league standards of sponsor-sign boards and media access, among other violations.

Scary stat: Forward Christen Press has scored eight goals for magicJack this season, including a hat trick last week versus Boston. Press and Flash rookie Morgan will be battling for the Rookie of the Year award.

Sky Blue FC (5-7-4, 19 points)

Back-to-back losses to the Flash and magicJack have Sky Blue FC clinging to the last playoff spot. Casey Nogueira has led the way offensively for the squad in her first year with the team, scoring five goals, several of the highlight-reel quality. After coaching turmoil in its first two seasons, former Freedom coach Jim Gabarra should become the first Sky Blue FC coach to start and finish the season as coach.

Scary stat: Sky Blue FC is just 1-5-1 away from New Jersey this season and it plays its final two games of the year on the road at Philadelphia and Boston. The team's final game against the Breakers could be a play-in match for the final playoff spot. A win or tie against Philadelphia this weekend, along with a Boston loss, clinches a playoff berth.

Boston Breakers (4-8-4, 16 points)

The Breakers started strong in 2009 and collapsed at the end of the season, missing the playoffs. In 2010, the Breakers started out miserably, and then surged forward in the second half to finish in second place. In 2011, the Breakers have struggled all season. A 4-0 loss at magicJack last week has their playoff hopes slim and they could be eliminated from the race as early as this weekend. Their biggest offensive hopes lie with Lauren Cheney and Kelly Smith, both now returning from injuries they suffered during the World Cup, though the players are still not 100 percent fit. On the bright side, the Breakers control their own destiny. In their final two games, they host magicJack and Sky Blue FC. Two wins will clinch them a spot in the playoffs.

Scary stat: The Breakers were actually better during the World Cup, without their star players and their head coach, than they were before and have been after. Since the end of the tournament and the return of their United States and English internationals, the Breakers are 0-3-1. It was an 0-3-1 (with one goal scored) collapse in 2009 that cost them a playoff spot.

Atlanta Beat (1-11-4, 7 points)

Atlanta has already been eliminated from playoff contention, and is just struggling to score goals. Its goalless streak has reached 577 minutes and they have as many points as they do goals this season, seven.

Scary stat: Only four players have scored for the Beat this season as they have struggled mightily in the offensive third of the field.