August 22, 2009

Sky Blue Wins WPS Championship on Goal by O'Reilly

Sky Blue FC completed their Cinderella run to the title by defeating the Los Angeles Sol 1-0 at the Home Depot Center on Saturday. The only goal of the match was scored by Heather O'Reilly in the 16th minute. Jen Branam posted her second consecutive shutout in the playoffs to seal the win.

It's been an improbable run for New Jersey, who entered the playoffs with a losing record at 7-8-5. They had never beaten any of their three playoff opponents previously and hadn't scored a goal against Los Angeles until today.

Christie Rampone made two changes in her starting 11 for today. She started Francielle in the midfield instead of either of the veterans Collette McCallum or Kelly Parker. And more importantly, for the first time in 3 matches, she decided to start Natasha Kai rather than save her for the end of the match. Both teams were missing key players for the match, Camille Abily for Los Angeles and Anita Asante for Sky Blue.

The goal sequence started on a throw-in deep in LA territory. Keeley Dowling threw the ball in to Kacey White who touched it back to Dowling. Dowling sent a long high cross to about 12 yards out in the middle of the penalty area. Natasha Kai flicked a header to Heather O'Reilly who had slipped behind Manya Makoski. O'Reilly drilled the shot from about 8 yards out before Makoski or Allison Falk could reach her. Karina LeBlanc was able to get her foot on the ball, but the shot deflected just inside the post to put New Jersey up 1-0.

Down 1-0 and with no flow to their offense, things got a whole lot worse for Los Angeles 10 minutes later. Natasha Kai was making a run up the left side and then cut toward the middle at about 30 yards out. Allison Falk, who was running behind Kai, clipped her as she made her cut and was red carded for the play. The Sol were forced to play one down for the last 63 minutes of the match. It definitely changed the complexion of the game and almost immediately afterwards, LA coach Abner Rogers used his first substitution to add another defender to take Falk's place on the back line in sending Sharolta Nonen in for McCall Zerboni.

Los Angeles came close to equalizing in the 72nd minute. Marta got the ball to Shannon Boxx about 20 yards in front of the goal. Boxx turned and hit a low shot to the left corner that appeared to catch Branam off guard. Branam just barely got her hand on the ball and it rolled harmlessly over the endline for a corner.

In the 76th minute, O'Reilly nearly got in behind the Los Angeles defense, but Makoski made a great recovery to knock the ball away from her at the last second. In the 84th minute, a free kick nearly found Boxx inside the 6 yard box, but Branam was able to deflect that away. On the ensuing corner kick, Boxx hit a volley from about 18 yards at a bad angle. The shot had good pace, but was right at Branam.

The Sol's last opportunity came just into stoppage on a free kick from about 30 yards out. But Marta's shot went easily over the goal and any chance of tying the match went with it.

Heather O'Reilly was named the MVP of the championship game. Jen Branam had a spectacular run in the playoffs giving up just one goal in three matches. And Christie Rampone, who has now coached one more playoff game than regular season games, is the head coach of the WPS champions.