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Thursday, August 25, 2011
Philly's opposites combine for great soccer

By Beau Dure

One has no body art. The other has tattoos that seem to multiply by the week.

One has a grand total of 40 Tweets in her first three months on Twitter. The other can easily do that in a weekend, starting with her daily coffee that she calls "SEXINACUP" and usually devoting some of her 140 characters to write "#BOOMBAM #MADAFAKA."

What do Amy Rodriguez and Tasha Kai have in common? They're World Cup and Olympic veterans who have revived their pro careers with the Philadelphia Independence, which will play for the Women's Professional Soccer championship Saturday against the Western New York Flash.

With such contrasting personalities and scant experience playing together, it's little wonder coach Paul Riley was able to sell a little ruse leading up to the postseason. After Philadelphia's next-to-last game of the regular season, he told reporters he had struggled to get Kai and Rodriguez to click in combination on the field.

Riley then rested Kai, who had played every WPS game of the season, in the regular-season finale against magicJack. But when the same two teams met in the playoffs a week later, Kai lined up alongside Rodriguez. Both forwards looked dangerous in combination and each scored a second-half goal in a 2-0 win.

"To be honest, we've been selling the world on the fact they couldn't play together so we could keep [their tactics] quiet," Riley said. "&As different as their personalities are, they're having great fun together."

Still, the forwards haven't had a lot of time to work together. Kai and Rodriguez have been national teammates, winning gold in the 2008 Olympics, but they usually didn't start games together. Rodriguez has remained on the national team. Kai, a mainstay of the team from 2006 to 2008 and a World Cup player in 2007, has been out of the picture for a couple of years.

And when Rodriguez returned from the World Cup this summer, Philadelphia had made a small but important midfield change. U.S. teammate Megan Rapinoe, known for her precise crosses from the wings, had moved on. Veronica Boquete, who operates in the middle of the field, was the team's playmaker.

"When I first came back -- not just with Tasha, but with all the players -- it's definitely difficult to immediately have that chemistry," Rodriguez said. "Most of the best teams in the world have been playing together for years. What Tash and I needed was a little bit of time, a little bit of experience together."

Kai had a learning curve, too.

"The first few days of practice, it was a nightmare," Kai said. "It was frustrating. Nothing was clicking with us. Maybe the third or fourth day around, everything started clicking. It got better and better as the days went by."

But the team plays to Rodriguez's strengths of running without the ball, anticipating passes from Boquete and the other skillful players in the tight-knit Independence midfield.

"The national team is a different setup -- the ball comes from deeper in the midfield," Riley said.

Kai also thrives on those runs and passes from Boquete, the league's player of the year.

"It's always good having a midfielder who's so crafty," Kai said. "It's fun playing with her. It's fun watching her play. She pulls tricks out that are kind of jaw-dropping."

Riley loves Boquete's play, too.

"Vero could probably play with my grandmother up front," Riley said. "She's that consistent."

And Riley has developed a reputation for helping forwards regain their confidence.

"He did it for A-Rod last season," Kai said. "She was struggling in '09 at Boston. I looked at her and was kind of envious of her all last season. I thought, 'I want to be where she is.'"

In the offseason, she got her wish, moving from Sky Blue to Philadelphia after two years struggling with her form and shoulder injuries.

"I had trouble the past couple of years -- never had confidence, never had passion," Kai said. "I was very close to retiring and giving up soccer. It just wasn't fun for me anymore. Paul and David [Halstead, the Independence owner] decided to bring me here, and coach Paul promised me that he was going to find the passion I had for the game and make me love soccer again.

"I really didn't believe him at first. But I'm standing here with proof that he helped me find that passion again."

Riley emphasizes specific shooting and finishing drills for forwards in training, something a lot of coaches in American soccer neglect. But he also insists players need to shoot their way out of slumps. When Rodriguez came back from an occasionally difficult run at the World Cup and wanted to sit back in the attack, Riley told her otherwise.

"I said, 'I want you sticking balls in the parking lot and the trees,'" Riley said. "That means you're getting chances."

And those chances have paid off. Rodriguez sealed Philadelphia's win over magicJack last week with a majestic chip over national teammate Jill Loyden.

Could a happier and healthier Kai rejoin Rodriguez on the national team?

Riley thinks coach Pia Sundhage should consider it.

"All of the parts of her game I think people would question, she's put right," Riley said. "I hope Pia has another look at her, because I think she deserves it."

Being national teammates again would give Rodriguez something else in common with Kai, even if she's never going to Tweet about her daily coffee or cover herself in tattoos.

"Not my thing," Rodriguez says with a laugh.