|espnW.com: News & Opinion|
CHESTER, Pa. -- Philadelphia Independence forward Tasha Kai talked all season about being happier than ever before. On Saturday, a jubilant Kai had one more reason to smile.
Her goal, less than one minute into the second half, lifted Philadelphia to a 2-0 WPS Super Semifinal victory over magicJack at PPL Park. Forward Amy Rodriguez iced the game in the 81st minute when she chipped a shot past magicJack goalkeeper Jillian Loyden.
Kai sprinted across the field with both hands in the air, and hugged fans as soon as the final whistle blew.
"I've never been happier," Kai said. "This is my first time since college being happy playing soccer."
That disgruntled stretch includes winning a WPS championship with Sky Blue FC in 2009. Now she is one win away from a second title in three years. The Independence will face the top-seeded Western New York Flash next Saturday.
Last season, Kai fell out of favor at Sky Blue FC and was benched when no other teams were willing to make a trade. Philadelphia head coach Paul Riley saw a player in search of a second chance. He invested time into training her and soon the old Kai -- the one who played in the Beijing Olympics in 2008 for the United States -- was back.
"When I first came here, Paul told me, 'I'm going to get back that passion you once had for soccer,'" Kai said. "I never believed him, but I'm living proof to this day, and I thank him every day for helping me find that passion and that love I had for soccer again."
Saturday's goal was Kai's 10th of the season, a career high.
She was active from the opening whistle. Her best chance of the first half came in the 34th minute, when she chipped it over a stranded Loyden from the corner of the 18-yard box, but the shot went just over the crossbar.
Kai was not the only ecstatic player. Philadelphia will play in its second final in as many seasons next Saturday. Last September, the Independence were embarrassed in a 4-0 loss to FC Gold Pride.
Rodriguez remembers that well. So does the rest of the Independence squad.
"We were disappointed in ourselves," Rodriguez said. "We had worked so hard during the season, and then that last game was unfortunate.
"This game was a stepping-stone. Our goal is to make it to the championship and obviously to bring home the trophy."
Rodriguez's goal also displayed a confidence she'd been missing. She calmly aimed the ball past Loyden after getting behind defender Christie Rampone. It was just the third goal of the season for Rodriguez, but the second straight game in which she scored.
That is a confidence she lacked, Riley said.
"Amy wasn't in great form," he said of Rodriguez's play earlier in the season. "Amy, in the past few weeks, has worked on her game a lot. Today you could see. They looked good together today."
MagicJack still had plenty of fight, despite the quick turnaround from Wednesday's 3-1 victory over the Boston Breakers in Boca Raton, Fla.
Rookie forward Christen Press hit the post in the 36th minute and the ball fell to Abby Wambach inside the 6-yard box. But the usually clinical finisher uncharacteristically pushed it wide of an open net.
It was just one of those days for Wambach. She also struck the crossbar on a 66th-minute header. A usually potent attack was stifled by Philadelphia goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart.
"Soccer is a game of who finishes their chances the most, and we didn't tonight," Wambach said.
"Either way, I'm still proud of this team for fighting back toward the end of this season, making the playoffs and finishing as strong as we possibly could."