June 19, 2009

WPS Weekend Games-June 20 & 21

The one constant in the WPS has been Los Angeles in 1st place. The one ever changing element of this league has been 2nd place. First, it was FC Gold Pride and Chicago. After they found themselves in 2nd place in early April, Gold Pride lost two in a row and hasn't been the same since. Chicago maintained their hold on 2nd place through their fourth game and then proceeded to not score for nearly 400 minutes. Next, it was Boston's turn at 2nd place. Since taking over 2nd place with a victory over the Sol on May 2nd, they haven't won a game. Then it was Washington's turn. The Freedom grabbed 2nd on the last weekend in May and followed that with a loss and a tie. So now it's Saint Louis' turn. Will they flop like the teams before them or will they solidify their hold by defeating 3rd place Washington? We'll find out on Saturday afternoon at Soccer Park in Fenton, Missouri.

Washington Freedom at Saint Louis Athletica

The first battle between these two teams in Germantown, Maryland was one of the most physical matches of the season. Daniela suffered a serious injury and in the aftermath of that game, Commissioner Antonucci decided she had had enough of the rough play and suspended Kia McNeill of Saint Louis and Abby Wambach of Washington. At that point, neither team was playing particularly well. This is the first time they've met since and now they are fighting for 2nd place. Well, hopefully not literally fighting. Interestingly enough, both teams have lost only one game since mid-April, both to the Sol in Los Angeles.

Both teams have new players that could make a difference since the last time they met. The Freedom have added goalkeeper Erin McLeod and defender Ali Krieger to their lineup. Athletica has added Kendall Fletcher, Christie Welsh, Stephanie Logterman, and Amanda Cinalli to theirs. All six of these players are expected to start on Saturday.

Saint Louis is still having trouble scoring, but Welsh and Cinalli have improved an offense that was basically Eniola Aluko vs. the world. It is essential that Athletica control possession in this game and score first. Their formula for winning has been scoring early and then holding on. Saint Louis will have to decide who gets the task of trying to stop Wambach, a player that can create havoc in the box just from her size and strength. They will also need to keep track of Sonia Bompastor, the player where much of the Freedom's offense starts. They must also worry about speedy Lisa DeVanna, who has been coming on as of late. It will be Tina Ellertson, McNeill, and Fletcher guarding the center of the defense. Saint Louis cannot afford to give up set pieces in their own end. Washington is the most dangerous team in the league in the air and on set pieces. Lori Chalupny, who has been pretty silent lately, must be very active this match.

For Washington, they have to shut down Aluko, whether that means starting Bompastor on the back line or having somebody shadow her for the entire game. The Freedom have the most versatile offense in the league. They score often on headers and have had eight different players score for the year. On three occasions, they have scored 3 or more goals in a game. DeVanna has added the speed factor that was lacking early in the year. McLeod gives them a goalkeeper that can make the big save when needed and the addition of Krieger should help the offense and defense.

I expect that this game will be called closely by the referee, meaning more set pieces which is an advantage for the Freedom. The heat could be a factor as this match will be played in the middle of the afternoon with temperatures approaching 90 degrees. It will be interesting to see if two players that have been pretty quiet, Angie Woznuk for Athletica and Homare Sawa for the Freedom, will have an impact on this game. Both keepers will have to be on their game, but I suspect that Hope Solo will be the busier of the two. It should be a very entertaining contest.

Boston Breakers at Chicago Red Stars

The last time these two teams met at Toyota Park, Chicago won the most lopsided game of the year, 4-0. Boston should be looking for some measure of revenge when the two teams meet on Sunday afternoon.

A little over a month ago, the Breakers looked to be the only team that could challenge Los Angeles for the top of the table. But after earning only 3 points in their last 5 games, Boston finds themselves in a struggle just to make the playoffs. The goal scoring went dry about the time Kelly Smith started having knee issues. They have scored only 3 goals in those five games. If you would have said two months ago that Jenny Nobis would have played one fourth the minutes of Amy Rodriguez, but had outscored her 1-0, everyone would have laughed. It's not so funny now. It's time for someone else on Boston to step up besides Smith and Kristine Lilly. Christine Latham and Angela Hucles have only added one goal apiece. Coach Tony DiCicco has also made a change in goal, where Allison Lipsher got her first start of the season on Wednesday against Gold Pride. The Breakers are in a grueling stretch of 4 games in 11 days, so DiCicco will have to substitute carefully.

Chicago is finally getting close to a healthy squad. They have lost Ella Masar for at least a month, but Carli Lloyd and Ifeoma Dieke are getting over injuries. Dieke is key for Chicago's defensive center. She is a fast, experienced center back who doesn't make a lot of mistakes. For Lloyd, coming back from injury could be a blessing. She was fairly ineffective early in the year and this could give her a new start. The Red Stars have scored two goals in their last 7 games, both by Cristiane. Megan Rapinoe and Karen Carney have got to become more effective offensively. Perhaps the answer is less one-on-one and more passing. Danesha Adams could be part of the solution. Lindsay Tarpley started the season on fire, but started the last game on the bench. Caroline J├Ânsson and the defense are playing well enough and deserve a better fate than they have gotten.

Both of these teams need to turn things around in a hurry. Fatigue could be a factor in this game as well, with the forecast for a warm day in Chicago and both teams coming off short rest, having played on Wednesday evening. In my opinion, Chicago needs to score early to take the pressure off, while Boston needs to do likewise, since it is uncertain how long Kelly Smith can go in this match. Both teams need this game badly.

FC Gold Pride at Los Angeles Sol

These teams have met twice in preseason and twice in the regular season, with the Sol winning by shutout every time. Gold Pride is another team that has been struggling to score with just 4 goals in their last 6 games. Meanwhile, Los Angeles just seems to be waltzing to the title.

Since the Sol have only been scored on in three games, a goal against them would be a moral victory. The only Bay Area player that has scored over the 6 game slump has been Christine Sinclair, who has now scored in each of the last four matches she has played in. The Canadian forward is the main reason that Gold Pride is still in the playoff hunt at all. Where is the rest of the offense? Added to their problems is that their biggest offensive threat from the back line, Kandace Wilson, is out for the season. On defense against the Sol, Gold Pride will have to make the choice that every team must make. Do you concentrate on stopping Marta, which gives LA's other talented players more space, or do you hope for the best with Marta and play your normal defense? To this point in the season, only Boston seems to have figured out the answer.

You have to wonder if the Sol might be a bit overconfident. They went into Jersey last Saturday and got outplayed by the hosts, barely managing a tie. Right now, their worst enemy might be themselves. No problem for Karina LeBlanc, however, as she just keeps piling on the shutouts. She now has eight for the year. The back line is solid, too, with Cox, Franko, Falk and Sanchez (or Bock). Adding to the defensive effort will be the return of Manya Makoski who has missed the last two games. Brittany Bock is probably the most versatile player in the WPS at this point. Camille Abily is one of the most talented midfielders in the game and then of course, there's Marta. Against Los Angeles, you must beware of set pieces and most especially of their counterattack, which is when they are most dangerous.

To win this game, Gold Pride will have to use its strengths, short passing and maintaining possession. Their defense can't afford mistakes and their midfielders must be ready to drop back quickly to help the back line and to head off counterattacks. Los Angeles should win if they play team soccer and don't get careless.