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Thursday, August 18, 2011
Spanish flair leads Philly into super semifinal

By Jeff Kassouf

In Spain, soccer is a way of life, from the beaches of Mallorca to the chic town squares in Barcelona. The passion quickly ensnared star forward Veronica Boquete as she grew up in the Galicia region of northwest Spain.

Her Philadelphia Independence teammate, fellow Spaniard Laura del Rio, also felt the call of soccer and followed her passion to become professional in the game.

The two Spanish players are a driving force in the Independence's success this season, helping lead the team into Saturday's WPS super semifinal against magicJack in Philadelphia.

Boquete was named as the WPS' Michelle Akers Player of the Year on Wednesday, an honor that has humbled her.

"This is a dream for me," said Boquete, 24. "It is the best individual success of my sports career to be MVP of the best league in the world. I can't believe it yet, but it is not just mine; it is for the team."

Independence coach Paul Riley sees Boquete as "obsessed" with the game, judging by her superior level of training and fitness. Boquete watches some of the best in the world play as often as she can and tries to replicate the likes of Lionel Messi and a fluent Barcelona attack.

"She is as smart as everybody thought," said Riley, who was recently named the WPS coach of the year. "She is that good. She is clever and I think she is just different. She is one of those world-class players."

Boquete and del Rio are friends, making the experience more fun for both.

Del Rio, a forward, played for the Boston Breakers last season and came to Philadelphia in the offseason with Boquete. They have helped each other adjust to a new culture, language and style of play.

"We already played together in Spain, and we understand each other," Boquete said. "In Spain, soccer is more possession of the ball, touch and movement. It is less physical but more technical than in the U.S."

Del Rio said her Spanish teammate is playing the best soccer of her life.

"The team attacks more when she is in the field, and she makes the team more dangerous," del Rio said. "I think she is playing better than ever. At this time last season, like now, she is getting to a very high level."

Del Rio is better, too. In about half the minutes (471) this year as she played last year in Boston, del Rio has one more goal (two) and two more assists (three).

Boquete's impact for the Independence is clear: The team is 9-1-1 when she plays but just 2-3-2 without her. Philadelphia (11-4-3, 36 points) enters Saturday's match as the higher seed, but Riley's squad faces a surging magicJack team that convincingly defeated the Boston Breakers 3-1 in Wednesday's first-round playoff game.

MagicJack is 2-2 against the Independence this season, losing by a combined 9-1 score. Both losses were in Philadelphia during this summer's World Cup, when magicJack had nine players competing in Germany.

Riley's approach was contrary to the one taken by magicJack, which loaded up on top players. American midfielder Lori Lindsey, forward Amy Rodriguez and goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart are the only World Cup participants on the Independence roster. Riley focused on building his team around players who would be with the team all season, not internationals who would be in and out of town.

That's where Boquete comes in, joining the team June 2 after completing her season with RCD Espanyol in Spain. She has tallied five goals, four of them game winners, and four assists in 11 games after Riley convinced her that she could win a championship in Philadelphia.

"Paul's interest and intensity really convinced me," Boquete said. "He spoke to me about an atmosphere of work and unsurpassed professionalism, and I loved that. Also, the ambition of the team to win a championship. I wanted to be with a team that was fighting for the title."

Philadelphia is now two wins from a WPS title 11 months after losing 4-0 to FC Gold Pride in the final last season.

Flashes of Boquete's brilliance were on display last year with the Chicago Red Stars, but she had just three matches at the end of the season to showcase her talent. She still managed to impress Riley when she scored against Philadelphia in a 2-0 Chicago win on Sept. 1.

In just a year, Boquete has gone from playing with the minor league Buffalo Flash (now Western New York Flash in WPS) to being the MVP of arguably the best women's soccer league in the world.

Now Riley wants Boquete to have the proper stage -- the WPS championship -- to display her talents. A win on Saturday against the higher-profile magicJack would set up an Aug. 27 final against the Flash in Rochester.

That is the stage on which Boquete hopes to shine. She came to Philadelphia with only one goal in mind.

"To win the WPS title is a dream for me," Boquete said. "It would be the best success of my sports career, a great satisfaction and a reward for all the effort."