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Friday, August 26, 2011
WPS final preview: Flash v. Independence


ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- For the first time in Women's Professional Soccer's three-year history, the No. 1 and No. 2 playoff seeds are meeting in the title match. The Western New York Flash finished first atop WPS this season, and won the automatic berth and right to host the title game. The Independence finished close behind in second place and dispatched No. 3 magicJack in the semifinals last week to earn their spot in the final Saturday.

Though their regular-season records are close, the Flash have to be considered the favorite heading into the match. They boast a forward line that consists of five-time reigning FIFA Player of the Year Marta, Canadian captain Christine Sinclair and United States World Cup star Alex Morgan.

Marta and Sinclair both played for and won a title with FC Gold Pride last year -- combining to score 29 goals. This year, they picked up where they left off, each netting 10 goals despite missing time for this summer's Women's World Cup.

"You just can't beat that," Flash defender Ali Riley said of Marta and Sinclair after Friday's practice. "I think they're the two best players in the world."

The Marta-Sinclair combination boasts impressive stats. When both have appeared in a match over the last two years, they've lost only three times, all last year, and they are unbeaten when both play and at least one scores. In fact, in Marta's three years in the league (the first with the Los Angeles Sol), she has never lost a match when she has scored (26-0-3, including last year's title game).

Of slight concern for the Flash, Marta sat out most of Friday's practice at Sahlen's Stadium in Rochester after Flash coach Aaron Lines said she "tweaked" her right groin muscle in Thursday's practice. She was limping slightly.

"Nothing too major, I don't think," Lines said. "Don't anticipate it getting in the way of her playing tomorrow -- hopefully."

The match is a rematch of sorts of last year's title game. Though FC Gold Pride folded after last season, a core group of players joined the expansion Western New York Flash -- most significantly the forward tandem of Marta and Sinclair.

Last year, the Independence had just two days of rest after two extra-time playoff games and were promptly beaten 4-0 in the title game, with Marta and Sinclair scoring three goals. This year, there's a week off in between the matches, so the Independence are a much more well-rested team.

"The worst memory for us was the fact we never showed up," Philadelphia coach Paul Riley said after his team's final training session Friday. "We didn't play well. We didn't really turn it on. This year, we've got a chance to put that right."

It's also a homecoming of sorts for Independence midfielder Veronica Boquete, who played for Lines and the Flash when they were the Buffalo Flash that won last year's W-League title. Now, she's the MVP of the league while leading the opposing offense.

"The final is special, but for me it is more [special]," the Spanish international said Friday. "Last year, I played here. I know the owner, the coach ... It's special, but now I [am] wearing other jersey. I want to win this final."

Boquete made the difference for Philadelphia this season. She arrived midseason and the team finished hot in the second half with a record of 9-1-1 when she appeared in a match.

Assuming Marta and Independence defensive midfielder Jen Buczkowski play Saturday, they'll be the only two players to have played in all three WPS finals, and they'll have done so always as opponents. Marta's Sol lost in an upset to Buczkowski's Sky Blue FC in 2009 before FC Gold Pride beat the Independence last season. Though Marta's team has earned the automatic bid into the final each time, Buczkowski has played in more playoff games (seven) than anyone else in the league.

Her biggest concern Saturday is once again trying to shut down Marta. Buczkowski's Sky Blue FC squad was able to keep Marta from scoring in her first final, but the Independence could not keep her and Sinclair off the scoreboard last year.

"It's just a matter of containing [Marta and Sinclair]," Buczkowski said. "They're good players, but we're going to try to limit their touches."