Boston Breakers fans have a new favorite player this week -- Philadelphia forward Lianne Sanderson. Sunday, Sanderson's last-minute goal gave the Independence a 2-1 win over Sky Blue FC and kept the Breakers alive in the playoff race heading into Sunday's season finale at home against Sky Blue FC, when the final spot in the Women's Professional Soccer's postseason will be determined.
A tie for the New Jersey side Sunday in Philadelphia would've eliminated the Breakers from playoff contention and given Sky Blue FC the final spot. Now, the two teams meet next Sunday afternoon (4 p.m. ET at Harvard Stadium in Boston) to decide who will advance to the postseason. The Breakers (4-9-4, 16 points) need a win to move on, while Sky Blue FC (5-8-4, 19 points) will advance with just a tie.
It's a scenario eerily similar to how the Breakers ended their 2009 season. Needing just four points to make the playoffs heading into their final four games, the Breakers went 0-2-1 in the first three and scored no goals. They hosted the Sol in their finale in Boston, and crashed out with a 2-1 loss after Shannon Boxx converted a late penalty kick.
Now, the Breakers head into Sunday's game on an 0-4-1 skid, with just three goals scored. And, like the 2009 collapse, they've gotten limited minutes from star midfielder Kelly Smith. Smith injured her left ankle in the World Cup and has played only 45 minutes for the Breakers since she returned from Germany. Saturday, she was listed as an available sub for Boston but was a late scratch after pregame warm-ups.
"It's day-to-day with her," coach Tony DiCicco said after Saturday's loss to magicJack. "She played 45 minutes up in Western New York [Aug. 3] at 50 percent and she was good. She was very good. She's that quality of player. She would've helped us today if she could've gotten on the field. She's really hurting. She wants to play but [her] ankle won't let her."
It's also a late-season scenario that Sky Blue FC is familiar with. In 2009, they benefited from the Breakers' loss to the Sol and advanced to the playoffs as the fourth and final seed. They eventually went on to win the title, winning three games on the road in seven days. In 2010, Sky Blue FC needed a win and some help in their final game, but got neither and missed the playoffs.
While the elimination encounters will be starting a bit earlier in Boston this weekend, the real playoffs get going just a few days later as Florida-based magicJack, who have clinched the No. 3 seed, will play host to either Boston or Sky Blue FC on Aug. 17 or 18. MagicJack has been on a tear of late, winning three straight games, and Abby Wambach has continued her aerial dominance since returning from the World Cup. Saturday in Boston, the Breakers played an even game with magicJack, but couldn't defend Wambach in the air, and gave up two goals to her to lose 2-0.
"It's almost impossible to mark Abby Wambach. She's just on another level apart from anyone else. We saw it in the World Cup. We're seeing it in the league. These are good defenders," DiCicco said. "There's just no ability to stop her when the balls are served into her head."
Meanwhile, the race for first is still on, and is heading into the final week of the season for the first time in league history. If Philadelphia (11-3-3, 36 points) wins its finale Sunday, the Western New York Flash (11-2-3, 36 points) would need four points out of a pair of matches this week to clinch the No. 1 seed, as the Independence hold the tiebreaker. The regular-season title holds significant value in WPS as it represents an automatic berth to the final, and also gives the winner the right to host the title match.
This week's games:
Western New York Flash at magicJack (7 p.m. ET)
magicJack at Philadelphia Independence (4 p.m.)
Sky Blue FC at Boston Breakers (4 p.m.)
Atlanta Beat at Western New York Flash (6 p.m.)