In a WPS first, first place is at stake
CHESTER, Pa. -- In the 90th minute of play here Sunday, the Women's Professional Soccer playoffs seemed set. New Jersey-based Sky Blue would get the point it needed to clinch the final playoff spot. Philadelphia would not get the win it needed to keep the race for first place interesting.
In one mad scramble, it all changed. And that leaves nearly everything up in the air in the final week of the season.
"The Cardiac Kids came through again," a beaming Philadelphia coach Paul Riley said in the celebratory minutes between Lianne Sanderson's goal for a 2-1 win and a postgame laser show to commemorate the Independence's last home game before the playoffs. Philadelphia will host either the Aug. 20 semifinal or Aug. 27 final at the larger venue of PPL Park rather than its cozy home at Widener University.
Sky Blue has a week to get rid of the bitterness -- coach Jim Gabarra had to pull incensed goalkeeper Jenni Branam away from game officials after the final whistle -- before a now-vital game in Boston.
All four games in the final week in WPS are potentially meaningful:
Wednesday: Western New York at magicJack (Boca Raton, Fla.), 7 p.m. ET
The six-team WPS standings have two certainties: Atlanta will finish sixth, and magicJack will finish third. But Western New York is tied with Philadelphia and could use a win here to pull ahead by three points.
The hosts could certainly give a few players a rest -- U.S. midfielder Shannon Boxx, who seemed to be pushing through fatigue in the World Cup, made many runs forward Saturday against Boston. The schedule left magicJack relatively idle while its national team players were away, but left eight games to play in the season's final four weeks.
Or magicJack could play up a burgeoning rivalry with Western New York. The Flash counter magicJack's U.S. national team-heavy lineup (Boxx, Abby Wambach, Christie Rampone, Megan Rapinoe, Becky Sauerbrunn and Jill Loyden) with a powerful collection of international World Cup stars (Brazil's Marta, the USA's Alex Morgan, New Zealand's Ali Riley, Sweden's Caroline Seger and the Canadian duo of Candace Chapman and Christine Sinclair). U.S. and magicJack goalkeeper Hope Solo is injured but has hinted on Twitter that she will be back in Florida for the game.
Sunday: Philadelphia at magicJack (Boca Raton, Fla.), 4 p.m. ET
Philadelphia holds the head-to-head tiebreaker against Western New York, but if the Flash beat magicJack on Wednesday, Philadelphia coach Paul Riley says he'll basically wave the white flag, figuring Western New York will get the point it needs to clinch first place at home Sunday against last-place Atlanta.
"If Western New York wins on Wednesday, we won't put our full lineup out," Riley said. "As far as I'm concerned, Atlanta's not going to Western New York to win a game. There's not a chance in hell. If magicJack wins on Wednesday, for sure we'll play our best lineup to try to win that game."
The oddity for Philadelphia: Resting players would be mean bringing U.S. national team players into the lineup.
"If you replace Danesha [Adams], you bring Lori Lindsey in," Riley said. "If you replace [Tasha Kai], you bring [Amy Rodriguez] in. So I don't know if you could say it's a weakened lineup."
And Riley might keep a few tactical ideas in reserve in case the Independence play magicJack again in the playoffs.
"I don't want to show our hand because it's going to be magicJack, I have a feeling, we're going to be playing [in the postseason]," Riley said.
Sunday: Sky Blue at Boston, 4 p.m. ET
The scenario for the fourth and final playoff spot is simple: winner goes to the playoffs. With a tie, Sky Blue would advance.
Boston has lost four in a row, but all of those games were against the top three teams in the league. "I would not like to be in Sky Blue's situation, going to Boston needing a point," Riley said.
Boston played well much of the way Saturday at home against magicJack but had a couple of costly defensive lapses and missed opportunities, including a penalty kick that was saved.
"We played pretty evenly and had our chances, but there seems to be a force field in front of the goal when we're shooting," Boston's Meghan Klingenberg said.
Sky Blue is used to final-game drama, winning a must-win in the 2009 regular-season finale before going on to win three straight playoff games and the WPS title.
"Sky Blue's history has been such that we make it a little bit interesting at the end of the year," midfielder Heather O'Reilly said. "The first year, we went all the way. Last year, we didn't make the playoffs. It seems to always come to the last game for us. It's always a great battle with Boston, and this is going to be no different."
The game divides several players from England's national team -- Eniola Aluko, backup goalkeeper Karen Bardsley and Anita Asante for Sky Blue against Kelly Smith and Alex Scott for Boston -- though Smith and Asante have been battling injuries. The U.S. team is split a little less evenly: Sky Blue has two (O'Reilly, Tobin Heath) to Boston's five (Lauren Cheney, Amy LePeilbet, Kelley O'Hara, Stephanie Cox, Rachel Buehler). Sky Blue also has Therese Sjögran, whose Swedish team beat the USA in the World Cup.
Yet the most notable media swarm last Saturday in Boston was around the Breakers' Aya Sameshima, a member of the world champion Japanese team whose moves were documented by a couple of persistent Japanese TV camera crews.
Sunday: Atlanta at Western New York (Rochester, N.Y), 6 p.m. ET
The visiting Beat will have no stake in the standings but will want to end several epic slumps before the season is over. The youthful team won its second game April 16 against Sky Blue and showed potential in its next game, a 2-2 draw at star-studded Western New York. Since then, Atlanta has tied three games and lost 11, scoring no goals in 12 of those 14 games.
But Western New York likely will be motivated by the chase for first place. By game time, the Flash could be eliminated (with a loss Wednesday and Philadelphia win Sunday). If not, the team will know whether it needs a draw or a win to clinch first place and a bye to the WPS final.
Having first place at stake on the final day is a first in WPS's three years. Los Angeles and FC Gold Pride ran away and hid from the rest of the teams in 2009 and 2010.
"I don't think WPS has ever had this," Riley said. "For the league, it's great. It's showing a little more evenness than in past years."