July 31, 2009

WPS Weekend Matches-August 1st & 2nd

There are three matches on the schedule for this weekend, with two of them having playoff implications. The Breakers-Athletica match and the Freedom-FC Gold Pride match could reshuffle the deck as far as the playoffs go. Meanwhile, Los Angeles visits Chicago in a match that has no bearing on the playoffs.

The Playoff Picture

Heading into this weekend's action, Saint Louis is in 2nd place with 27 points and has 3 games left. Washington is in 3rd place with 26 points, Boston is in 4th place with 25 points, and Sky Blue FC is in 5th with 23 points. Washington, Boston, and Sky Blue each have two games left.

Saint Louis-Athletica clinches a playoff berth with a win over Boston and/or a Washington loss to FC Gold Pride. They would also clinch a playoff berth with a tie against Boston if Washington also ties Gold Pride. Athletica clinches 2nd place with a victory over Boston and a Washington loss to Gold Pride. They clinch 3rd place and a home playoff game with a victory over Boston combined with a Washington tie or win against Gold Pride.

Washington-The Freedom can clinch a playoff berth with a victory over FC Gold Pride and a Saint Louis victory over Boston.

Boston-The Breakers can clinch a playoff spot with a victory over Saint Louis and a Washington tie or loss against FC Gold Pride.

None of the four teams competing for the final playoff berths, including idle Sky Blue FC, can be eliminated this weekend.

Washington Freedom at FC Gold Pride

The Freedom continued their strong playoff push by defeating Boston 1-0 on Wednesday. Washington has now won three games in a row. They travel west to meet FC Gold Pride on Saturday afternoon. FC Gold Pride has shown improvement in their last couple of games, gaining ties against the top two teams, Los Angeles and Saint Louis.

Washington is getting hot at the right time, as is their big scorer, Abby Wambach. She has scored 3 goals in her last two matches. Lisa DeVanna, who has 5 goals and 4 assists herself, assisted on Wambach's goal against Boston. Sonia Bompastor, the 3rd of the Freedom's big three, started at midfield and I would expect that is where she will be starting Saturday. The Freedom started Cat Whitehill, Becky Sauerbrunn, Jill Gilbeau, and Ali Krieger on defense in their last match, but it will be interesting to see if Coach Jim Gabarra might opt for Alex Singer in this contest. Erin McLeod, who has a 1.33 goals against average, will handle the goalkeeping duties for the Freedom.

FC Gold Pride has shown a lot of character in their last two matches, holding the Sol to a scoreless tie and scoring in the 87th minute to tie Athletica. But they still haven't won a match since May 16th against Chicago. Formiga was limping heavily after last Sunday's match and my fears were confirmed when she was listed as "unavailable" for this contest on the WPS roster report. Christine Sinclair was once again the FCGP goal scorer against Saint Louis. She is now tied for 3rd in the league in scoring. Gold Pride is still trying to find someone to complement her up front. Gold Pride's defense has shown some resolve, giving up just two goals in their last 3 matches. They start Leigh Ann Robinson, Kristen Graczyk, Carrie Dew, and Rachel Buehler across the back line with Nicole Barnhart in goal.

Washington has won the two previous meetings between these teams, scoring 7 goals in the process. With only a single match with Sky Blue remaining after this one, the Freedom need to get as many points here as possible. Look for the Freedom to pressure from the start and try to get a quick lead.

Boston Breakers at Saint Louis Athletica

Boston suffered two losses on Wednesday night. First, they lost to the Freedom which dropped the Breakers to 4th place. Second, Alex Scott picked up a red card early in that match and will miss Saturday's contest with Saint Louis as well. In addition to Scott, coach Tony DiCicco is also suspended for this match for his postgame comments about the officiating in Wednesday's match. Saint Louis comes into this match with 4 wins and a tie in their last 6 matches, but they are still smarting from last Sunday's match when they were within minutes of clinching a playoff berth. They will get another shot at ensuring themselves a spot in the playoffs against the Breakers on Saturday evening.

Although this match is important for both teams, it is more critical for Boston. If Boston loses, they may no longer have control over their own destiny with respect to making the playoffs. Kelly Smith subbed in the 2nd half against the Freedom, but due to the importance of this match, I look for her to start this one. She leads the Breakers in goals with 5, followed by Kristine Lilly with 3. However, Boston has been getting scoring from other sources lately, including Jenny Nobis, Kelly Schmedes, and Angela Hucles.

Boston's defense has been outstanding lately and they haven't given up an even strength goal in their last 4 games. However, with Scott suspended and Sue Weber injured, the Breakers are razor thin on defense. Look for the back line to be Nancy Goffi, Heather Mitts, Amy LePeilbet, and Candace Chapman for this match. Allison Lipsher has been one of the top keepers in the WPS since taking over as starter and she has posted 5 shutouts in roughly half a season.

Saint Louis can only kick themselves for letting one get away last weekend. Now they have to face a tough, desperate Boston squad with 2nd and possibly even 3rd place on the line. Athletica's defense has also been solid, giving up just two goals over their last 5 matches. Hope Solo, second only to Karina LeBlanc in shutouts and goals against, will start in goal for Athletica. The defense is led by Tina Ellertson and Kia McNeill. Lori Chalupny, who is one of the top defenders internationally, is one of the best midfielders in WPS. Eniola Aluko is Athletica's leading scorer, but Niki Cross netted her first of the season against Gold Pride last weekend. Amanda Cinalli adds offensive punch from her attacking mid position.

Saint Louis must pressure Boston's defense early on and try to get an early lead. Athletica has been woefully outscored late in matches, so they need to have a lead heading into the final minutes of the match. Boston must deal with the loss of Scott, who is not only a top defender, but a serious offensive threat going forward. If Smith is able to start, it should offset the loss of Scott somewhat. I expect a low scoring contest. There will probably not be many more important regular season matches than this.

Los Angeles Sol at Chicago Red Stars

The Los Angeles Sol would like to get some momentum heading into the playoffs. They have a loss and a tie in their last two outings. It's been quite awhile since they've gone two consecutive matches without a win. For Chicago, who is out of playoff contention, the 2010 season starts now. They must sort out where to go from here and what needs to be done in the off season to improve their team.

Los Angeles is in a holding pattern, waiting to see who they will face in the WPS Championship game 3 weeks from Saturday. They haven't looked particularly sharp lately and have only played one match in the last three weeks. But they do still have the top two scorers in the league, Marta and Camille Abily, the WPS assists leader, Aya Miyama, and the top goalkeeper in the league, Karina LeBlanc, so things are still looking pretty good. LeBlanc leads all starting keepers with a 0.35 goals against average. Their defense is also strong led by Stephanie Cox and Allison Falk, and they have added Sharolta Nonen to replace Martina Franko. The Sol's midfield just keeps getting stronger, especially since it appears that Aly Wagner is finally close to being 100% healthy.

It has been a frustrating season on many levels for the Red Stars. Early on, they appeared to be a top contender, someone that could challenge the Sol for 1st place. But injuries on defense, inconsistent midfield play (most notably by Carli Lloyd), two red cards, an additional suspension due to yellow card accumulation, and several long scoring droughts have made for a rough campaign. Chicago is just 2-9-3 over their last 14. Cristiane has been one of the bright spots, scoring 6 goals, good for third best in the WPS. Megan Rapinoe and Karen Carney both scored their 2nd goals in their last contest vs. Washington. Chicago's defense is led by Ifeoma Dieke and Marian Dalmy, with Caroline J├Ânsson in goal.

Los Angeles has a win and a tie in the two previous meetings against Chicago. Both teams have one match left after this one. The Red Stars finish at Saint Louis on Wednesday, while the Sol travel to Boston next Sunday. The Sol-Red Star contest will be played at Toyota Park on Sunday, a nationally televised match on FSC.

DiCicco Suspended

As mentioned above, Boston coach Tony DiCicco was suspended for comments about the officiating following Wednesday's match against the Washington Freedom. He will miss Saturday's match against Saint Louis Athletica.

DiCicco issued an apology for his actions stating that his comments were "wrong" and he agreed that referee Jose Rivero "was justified issuing the red card". In addition to his suspension, he has been fined $1000 and must perform 6 hours of community service to the sport of soccer.