Boston Breakers squeak into the postseason
The Boston Breakers clearly like a little adventure. They needed a 2-0 win over Sky Blue FC in the final game of the regular season to lock up the last spot in the Women's Professional Soccer playoffs on Sunday.
The Breakers will start the playoffs against host magicJack at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton on Wednesday, with top scorers Lauren Cheney and Kelly Smith hobbling a bit.
The Breakers will need everybody in quick-turnaround mode, as they are 1-3 against third-place magicJack this season. Things get tougher, considering magicJack's 7-2 record playing at FAU.
That means getting Cheney and Smith -- two generations of crafty No. 10s -- onto the pitch at the same time for the first time since May 28.
"They both have some similar qualities, how they play with the ball," Breakers coach Tony DiCicco said. "I wouldn't mind playing them both in attacking midfield. Kelley O'Hara, she can play up top as a center forward, so we'll have to see what our game plan is like on Wednesday."
DiCicco said Smith "is still up in the air" for Wednesday's playoff match. She was available on the bench Sunday but did not play because the Breakers were winning 2-0 by halftime.
Both players are trying to heal from the wear and tear of the World Cup. Cheney turned her right ankle in the opening moments of the final against Japan on July 17. Smith came into the World Cup limping, then tweaked her ankle again and suffered an Achilles strain during England's run to the quarterfinals.
The Breakers will need another strong outing from Cheney, who scored both of the team's goals against Sky Blue. Cheney, who stands 5-foot-10, is easily mistaken as a target forward. She is a clinical finisher, having established her scoring ability last year as a rookie. She scored five goals and added two assists in 23 games last year.
Her season was abbreviated this year because of the World Cup, but Cheney has scored three times in her past nine games.
In her four years at UCLA, Cheney scored 71 goals, including 28 game winners, and quickly brought herself into the U.S. national team picture. To many, Cheney, looked like the heir to Abby Wambach as the next strong, aerially dominant American forward.
But Cheney has emerged as a playmaker, sitting deeper in the midfield and pinging passes to teammates. That became apparent during the World Cup, where she was a finalist for the Golden Ball (awarded to the tournament's best player) as a midfielder.
Her long runs from the left side of midfield helped the Americans thrive in their run to the World Cup final, where they lost to Japan on penalty kicks. The tournament was a coming-out party for Cheney the playmaker, not Cheney the forward.
That didn't surprise DiCicco.
"She's always been a playmaker for us," he said. "I played her last year in the midfield at times. She is a very good playmaker. I think that is her best position: attacking midfield. And she works really hard defensively."
Cheney agrees. She is aware that she's built a reputation as a front-runner and a finisher, but Cheney said she is most comfortable being creative on the ball.
"I think that is what I have always brought to the table," Cheney said. "I have never been a typical forward that is going to get in behind, necessarily. I like to play with the ball at my feet, so with Boston, I play midfield and forward. I look at myself as a playmaker no matter where I am on the field."
Smith, one of the original WUSA/WPS maestros, is just as critical to the Breakers' playoff hopes. She has defined the role of the No. 10 shirt -- typically worn by a team's craftiest player -- for the WUSA's Philadelphia Charge, for England and for the Breakers in WPS.
Smith wants to play, but injuries continue to hamper her game.
"It's just one of those injuries that needs time, and I can't give it time," Smith said.
The Breakers have to find a way to contain magicJack forward Wambach, who finished the regular season with nine goals and two assists in 11 games. She has scored three times in the past two matches against the Breakers.
"It's a very difficult task," DiCicco said about stopping Wambach. "I don't know if there is any one player in the world who can defend her right now when she is on her game, but we are going to have to come up with a tactic to prevent her from getting looks on goal."