Five things to watch in the WPS playoffs
The Women's Professional Soccer playoffs start Wednesday, and there's enough excitement and intrigue to go around.
1. New playoff format
To the regular-season winners go the spoils. The playoff format is new, and it gives preference to the top WPS teams. So the Western New York Flash finished first and get to slide right into playing and hosting the Aug. 27 final. The Philadelphia Independence checked in second, so they are hosting the super semifinal on Aug. 20. And magicJack snared third, which means the fourth-place Boston Breakers will be making a trip to Florida to play the first round Wednesday.
There's something for everybody, from the die-hard soccer fan to those who know only how to name-check stars such as Marta, Abby Wambach and Kelly Smith. This year's WPS rosters are deep and have a treasure trove of players who made the World Cup one for the memory banks. The magicJack squad is loaded with American national team players, including Wambach, Hope Solo, Megan Rapinoe and U.S. captain Christie Rampone. If you're feeling a little more international, check out the Flash, who are headlined by Brazilian star Marta, Canadian captain Christine Sinclair and Sweden captain Caroline Seger.
3. Time will tell
The WPS is hoping that the high-level soccer, played by some of the best in the world, will bring out new fans who got hooked on the game through the World Cup. Support has been decently strong for the Flash, Independence and Breakers all season; magicJack is working on growing its fan base after its move from Washington to South Florida before this season.
4. All hail Coach Wambach
The players will leave it all on the field, since the playoffs are a one-and-done format. Wambach will have to keep her heart and legs strong, as she will be playing the dual roles of key player and acting coach. She was handed the reins to magicJack after the World Cup and has helped turn the team around. How will she handle the strategic moves in the playoffs, given that she doesn't have the luxury to stand on the sidelines and think about everything? Wambach's soccer smarts will be tested.
5. The X factors
The playoffs could bring the best out of unsung or emerging talents, such as Lauren Cheney of the Breakers, Tasha Kai of the Independence, Nikki Washington of magicJack and Ashlyn Harris of the Flash. Cheney and Kai have national team experience, with Cheney fresh off the World Cup. Harris is making a strong showing in goal during her first full season starting in the WPS. And Washington is showing creativity in Wambach's new system, racking up assists.