June 26, 2009

WPS Weekend Games-June 27 & 28

It's funny how you find out about things sometimes. As I routinely do on Friday evenings before finishing my preview of the weekend games, I was checking the roster report on the WPS website to see what players were listed as injured. I'm browsing through the list and all of a sudden something just popped out at me. "Unavailable...Kerri Hanks (traded to Sky Blue FC), Francielle (traded to Sky Blue FC)...Sarah Walsh (traded to Saint Louis Athletica)." WOW!

The full trade is Kerri Hanks, Francielle, and the negotiating rights to Renata Costa for Sarah Walsh, the negotiating rights to Ester, and a conditional draft pick (conditional 1st or 2nd round pick depending on if Sky Blue can sign Renata Costa by December 1st). I can certainly see why Athletica would want Walsh. They have had trouble scoring and Walsh gives them the element of speed to give them a double threat with Eniola Aluko. However, Walsh has been injured for the last month with a hamstring injury. Kerri Hanks finally scored her first goal on Wednesday. Francielle had not been seeing much playing time recently, but she is the youngest player in the league, so that was surprising, too. In any case, this could be a blockbuster deal. None of the players can play this weekend as the deal was completed too late to be processed in time. But in any event, this trade added a little excitement to the weekend of soccer.

There is a light schedule this weekend with only two games slated, but the playoff race, like the weather, is heating up. After recapturing 2nd place with back-to-back victories, Boston gets the weekend off, as does 3rd place Washington. Saint Louis travels to New Jersey to take on Sky Blue FC in a battle for 4th place. Meanwhile, Chicago tries to find an answer to their scoring problems in Los Angeles.

Chicago Red Stars at Los Angeles Sol

At this point, it's very hard to see the Sol not winning the regular season title. They have 31 points, are 13 points ahead of everyone else, and chances are only one or two other teams will even get to 30 points by the end of the season. However, they have hit a few speed bumps lately, getting outplayed in two of their last three games. As good teams do, they still managed to capture 7 points in those three games, but I'm sure they were not happy with their play over that stretch. Chicago just needs to find a way to score, having hit the net just twice in the last 758 minutes of soccer. That's two goals in over 12 hours of soccer, if you're keeping track.

One thing that could be a factor in the Saturday morning contest is just how much Wednesday night's game in St. Louis took out of the Sol. They were outplayed on an extremely hot evening and were barely hanging on in the end. Considering the plane flight home, they really have less than 48 hours to recuperate before meeting the Red Stars at 10 am, LA time.

Although Marta and Camille Abily have done most of the scoring, the Sol are finding other sources of offense. Brittany Bock now has two goals. Han Duan made a brilliant play to score the first goal against Athletica. But I think the Sol relied a little too much on Karina LeBlanc's dazzling performance in goal for Abner Rogers' taste. LeBlanc has been the best keeper in the league to this point, but the clean sheets have been harder to come by lately. Their defense looked vulnerable at times and they allowed way too many good chances in that last game. Martina Franko did not make the trip to St. Louis, but she will be available for Saturday. Abily and Marta are now 1-2 in scoring with 7 and 6 goals respectively.

On the other hand, Chicago has scored just 8 goals all year, with four of them coming in one game. Emma Hayes has tried a variety of combinations in an attempt to get some offense, but so far she's come up empty. Only one Red Star has scored since April, that being Cristiane. And while the offense has been struggling, the Red Stars have just been riddled with injuries. Ella Masar, Ifeoma Dieke, and Carli Lloyd have missed a number of games and then Marian Dalmy got injured against Boston and she is out. In my opinion, Chicago ought to have one of the best midfields in the league, but they haven't been showing it on the pitch. Neither Karen Carney nor Megan Rapinoe has produced much lately and Lloyd has been in a season long slump. Keeper Caroline J├Ânsson has faced more shots than any other goalie, but she has managed to keep the Red Stars in most of their games.

The Red Stars have eight games left to get it turned around. In spite of everything, they are just three points out of a playoff spot and could move up to 5th place by the end of the weekend. After this game, Los Angeles will only have five games left and they will have plenty of opportunities to rest players for the playoffs. The two teams tied in their first meeting this year. If ever a team was vulnerable to an upset, I would think this would be the time for the Sol.

Saint Louis Athletica at Sky Blue FC

Sky Blue is a team trending upward. Since Kelly Lindsey took over as head coach, they have gone 2-1-1 and they have a chance to move into 4th place with a victory over Saint Louis. Athletica has squandered its games in hand and now are in the precarious predicament of losing their hold on the 4th and final playoff spot. While none of the traded players will participate in this game, it will be interesting to see how the trade affects each team mentally.

Sky Blue is coming off a week and a half hiatus, which should leave them well rested. Rosana scored the game winning goal in SBFC's last game against Chicago and with Walsh traded, she will be an even bigger part of Jersey's offense. Sky Blue has been playing better since Kelly Lindsey has taken over as head coach and this improvement also coincides with Yael Averbuch's insertion into the starting lineup. However, the problem all year for New Jersey has been scoring and they have scored just once in their last 3 games.

On defense, Sky Blue has given up more than one goal on only two occasions. The only other team that has done better is Los Angeles. Jen Branam has gotten most of the starts in the net, although Karen Bardsley started the last game against Saint Louis. The back line of Asante, Rampone, Dowling, Schnur have been solid. Dowling, who missed the first game in Saint Louis, gives them added strength on corners, with her great leaping ability.

Likewise, Saint Louis has had problems scoring. Kerri Hanks finally got her first goal, but now she is gone. The only consistent scorer has been Eniola Aluko, who has three goals and assisted on Hanks goal against the Sol. Amanda Cinalli has been a welcome addition to the Athletica midfield and she scored the only goal in the first meeting between these two teams. Set pieces have been a major problem for Saint Louis. Against LA, they attempted 12 corner kicks, with none of them producing anything close to a good scoring chance. Kendall Fletcher did a nice job marking Marta for most of the game Wednesday and I wonder if Natasha Kai might be her assignment on Sunday. The defense is usually solid, led by Tina Ellertson and Kia McNeill, but it seems like they have one or two breakdowns every game which have proven to be costly.

Sky Blue is the more rested team in this match. A victory for Athletica would give them some breathing room over the bottom teams in the league. A Sky Blue victory puts them in 4th place and remember that they don't have to face Los Angeles the rest of the season, which should certainly be in their favor. It should definitely be a low scoring match, given the two teams' histories. The game will be televised on FSC at 6pm eastern time on Sunday.