|espnW.com: News & Opinion|
CHESTER, Pa. -- The Philadelphia Independence defense had a tough task on Saturday: stop Abby Wambach, who has been on a goal-scoring tear all summer. Coming into the match, the U.S. national team superstar had scored six goals in her previous four games. But Philadelphia came into its WPS Super Semifinal meeting with magicJack equipped with the best defense in the league, and the Independence shut down Wambach and Co. in a 2-0 victory.
Philadelphia averaged just one goal against per game this year, but saved its best performance for when it needed it most. Now the Independence will have to find more of the same magic in next Saturday's title game against the Western New York Flash in Rochester, where they'll face the dynamic offensive trio of Marta, Christine Sinclair and Alex Morgan.
"We're tough in the defense," Philadelphia goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart said. "Our big aim going in was to really limit their serves from wide because they're so dangerous. We really limited their chances there. If they're not serving balls into Abby, she can't be dangerous in the air."
Philadelphia center backs Kia McNeill and Nikki Krzysik stifled magicJack's offensive attack at the center of the field, with McNeill marking Wambach on nearly every ball in the air. Midfielders Megan Rapinoe and Sarah Huffman, who overran the Breakers in Wednesday's first-round playoff game, got little going Saturday.
"They kept a clean sheet, so they obviously did a better job [defensively] than we did on the attack," Wambach told reporters after the match.
Barnhart made eight saves in the match, earning the clean sheet. Her best effort came in the 50th minute, denying Wambach a game-tying goal by tipping a shot over the bar. It came just four minutes after the Independence had taken the lead, and kept the momentum from turning in magicJack's favor.
"Even if our defense gets beat every once in awhile, we have an amazing goalkeeper," Independence forward Amy Rodriguez said. "She made so many great saves."
Philadelphia players also found themselves benefiting from a bit of luck at times in the match. A second-half Wambach header pinged off the crossbar, and Wambach somehow missed a wide-open net in the first half after rookie Christen Press' shot rebounded off the post to her. Even the Independence midfielders chipped in -- rookie Sinead Farrelly came back to help defensively and cleared a dangerous ball out in front of goal in the 38th minute.
"To get a clean sheet against magicJack is just unbelievable," Independence coach Paul Riley said. "We cut off the crosses [into Wambach]. We've had the best record defensively in the league with Western New York, but people still don't think we're that good in the back. We're athletic. We get stuck in. We get in the way of crosses. We get in the way of shots."
Barnhart spent her summer backing up Hope Solo for the U.S. national team, and now finds herself headed back to the final after winning a title with FC Gold Pride last year.
McNeill joined the Independence after playing for St. Louis and Atlanta the past two seasons. Her tough, physical play in the air kept Wambach from having a clean look at goal. A hard collision with Wambach in the first half that forced McNeill to leave the field for a moment didn't change her style, as she was still defending Wambach just as hard late in the game.