August 21, 2009

WPS Championship Preview-Sky Blue FC at Los Angeles Sol

Sky Blue FC (9-8-5) at Los Angeles Sol (12-3-5)
Saturday, August 22nd, 1pm PT, 4pm ET
Home Depot Center, Carson, California

Season Series: Los Angeles won the season series with two wins and a tie against Sky Blue.
4/5/09-Los Angeles 2, Sky Blue 0 (TD Bank Park)
5/15/09-Los Angeles 1, Sky Blue 0 (Home Depot Center)
6/13/09-Los Angeles 0, Sky Blue 0 (Yurcak Field)

Top Performers in the Series:
Los Angeles-Marta (3 goals); Camille Abily (1 assist); Han Duan (1 assist); Karina LeBlanc (3 shutouts).
Sky Blue FC-Jenni Branam (1.00 GA, 1 shutout).

Possible Starting Lineups:
Los Angeles Sol (Coach-Abner Rogers)
G-Karina LeBlanc (0.53 GA, 12 shutouts)
D-Keri Sanchez
D-Allison Falk (1 goal)
D-Brittany Bock (2 goals)
D-Stephanie Cox
M-Shannon Boxx (3 goals, 3 assists)
M-Manya Makoski
M-Aly Wagner (4 assists)
M-Aya Miyama (6 assist)
F-Marta (10 goals, 3 assists)
F-Han Duan (3 goals, 2 assists)
Unavailable Due to Euros: Camille Abily (8 goals, 1 assist)
Top Subs: McCall Zerboni, Katie Larkin, Sharolta Nonen, Liz Bogus, Lisa Sari, Val Henderson

Sky Blue FC (Coach-Christie Rampone)
G-Jenni Branam (1.03 GA, 7 shutouts)
D-Keeley Dowling (1 goal, 3 assists)
D-Jen Buczkowski
D-Christie Rampone
D-Meghan Schnur (2 assists)
M-Yael Averbuch (2 assists)
M-Collette McCallum (3 assists)
M-Heather O'Reilly (2 goals, 3 assists)
M-Kacey White (3 goals, 1 assist)
F-Natasha Kai (7 goals, 1 assist) or Kerri Hanks (2 goals, 1 assist)
F-Rosana (5 goals, 1 assist)
Unavailable Due to Euros: Anita Asante (starting defender); Karen Bardsley (backup keeper)
Top Subs: Kelly Parker, Francielle, Julianne Sitch, Katie Hooker, Noelle Keselica, Cori Alexander.
Note: Stats include playoff games for Sky Blue.

Game Preview:
It's the team of destiny, Sky Blue FC, against the regular season champions, the Los Angeles Sol, at the Home Depot Center in Carson, California. Sky Blue are on a playoff roll, winning two in a row, both over teams they had never won against. On Saturday, they will face yet another team that they have never beaten in Los Angeles. Los Angeles won two of the regular season matches, with the third ending in a scoreless tie. In fact, Sky Blue has yet to score a goal against the Sol in 270 minutes of soccer, but SBFC has been a giant killer in the playoffs. Now only one team stands between them and the title.

Los Angeles had a very impressive regular season up until the final month when they lost two games and tied Gold Pride, before coming from behind to beat Boston in their final regular season match. But one major reason for their success will be missing on Saturday, that being Camille Abily who has joined her French teammates for the Euros in Finland. The Sol only had 6 different players score goals for them and Abily had 8 of the 27. Sky Blue will still be missing defender Anita Asante, but their defense has played well without her, giving up just one goal in two playoff games.

You can't say enough about Jen Branam's playoff performance, shaking off injuries in both games and earning a shutout against Saint Louis in the semifinals. She is one of the quickest keepers in the league and also the most daring. She will roam well out of the penalty area to clear the ball out which could be disastrous, but so far she has managed to beat the attacking player in each case. In front of her will be Keeley Dowling, Jen Buczkowski, player-coach Christie Rampone, and Meghan Schnur. Dowling got her first goal of the year in the semis with a perfectly placed shot that beat Hope Solo. Buczkowski has filled in ably for Asante and Schnur is as steady as they come. Rampone is the leader on that back line.

After spending much of the early season on the bench, Yael Averbuch has been a force lately. She has her only two assists of the season in the playoffs, assisting on the game winner in each match. Her nifty dribbling move against Athletica got her free to nudge a pass toward a wide open Dowling for Sky Blue's only goal against Saint Louis. Collette McCallum has 3 assists this season and Kelly Parker will probably see action at midfield as well. Heather O'Reilly can be a dominating midfielder and may well be a key in this match. Kacey White, who really plays a 3rd forward, is Sky Blue's 3rd leading scorer.

For the first two playoff matches, Christie Rampone chose to start Kerri Hanks and save Natasha Kai for the end of the match. It's worked so far, so she may try it again Saturday. In spite of not scoring, Hanks had one of her most active matches in the semis and only a great diving save kept her from hitting the back of the net. The other forward will be Rosana, who has scored 5 goals this season, and with Kai, form perhaps the speediest forward duo in the league.

Los Angeles will start Karina LeBlanc in goal and she has 12 shutouts for the season, including 3 against this Sky Blue team. Her 0.53 goals against is the lowest of any starting keeper in the WPS. Her starting back line will probably consist of veteran Keri Sanchez, versatile Brittany Bock, Allison Falk, and Stephanie Cox. Both Falk and Cox have had great seasons, with Falk being nominated for Defender of the Year. For some reason, Cox never seems to get the recognition she deserves, perhaps because she does her job so efficiently.

Even with the loss of Camille Abily and her 8 goals, the Sol have a talented midfield. Start with Shannon Boxx, a WPS All-Star and mainstay on the US National Team. Add Manya Makoski, a defensive specialist who plays defender and midfielder equally well. Then there's Aly Wagner, who managed 4 assists, in spite of missing several matches due to injuries. And last, but not least, there is Aya Miyama, a playmaker extraordinaire with 6 assists.

When it comes to offense, Los Angeles has the most potent weapon in the league in Marta. She led the league with 10 goals and added 3 assists to that. Simply put, she is the fastest, most talented forward in the league and she will attract a lot of attention from Sky Blue's defensive back. Han Duan will be at the other forward position.

Los Angeles Sol Keys:
1) Clog up the midfield passing lanes-Sky Blue dominated the first 30 minutes of the semis with precision passing and quite frankly, Saint Louis didn't put a lot of pressure on their midfield. LA needs to pressure their midfield into mistakes and not let Sky Blue set up their chances.
2) Counterattack, counterattack, counterattack-There is no better team in the league at gaining possession and getting quickly into an attacking mode than the Sol. By counterattacking in this manner, Sky Blue will be less likely to risk bringing outside defenders Dowling and Schnur or midfielder Averbuch forward into the attack.
3) Beat the offsides trap-Los Angeles did just that in the second meeting between these two teams, with Marta timing her run perfectly and then she deftly dribbled around Branam and finished for the only goal of that match.

Sky Blue FC Keys:
1) Take it slow and be patient-Sky Blue isn't going to win an end to end shootout. Take your time, make good passes, keep possession, and wait for your chances. Another side benefit is that this strategy will likely frustrate Marta into coming back farther to gain possession, thus taking her farther away from the goal.
2) Make the safe play-This goes for the whole team. The defense must get the ball out of trouble with the first touch. There were a couple of instances on Wednesday when a loose ball lingered way too long in the penalty area. And how many more times will Branam wander 30 yards out and get away with it. I'll give her high marks for courage and daring, but eventually it's going to cost her.
3) Use team speed up the flanks-Several times in the semifinals, a Sky Blue attacker was able to beat Athletica's outside defenders and get a clean cross into the box. Kacey White and Heather O'Reilly are experts in this area. Use this strength to create chances, especially up the left side.

Game Analysis:
Unlike Athletica, who showed virtually no offense in the first 30 minutes on Wednesday, Los Angeles will likely be pressuring from the opening whistle. I don't think the Sol will play the 1st half in a "feeling out" mode. Sky Blue does have some talented offensive players of their own, but it's going to be hard for them to get numbers forward, especially from the back line as Keeley Dowling did in the semifinal. If they do get caught forward, they will be vulnerable to LA's lethal counterattack.

LeBlanc has been a top keeper all season, but Branam might be the hottest keeper in the league right now. She managed to get through the semi virtually untested by any formidable shots, but she will have to be on top of her game on Saturday. Sky Blue's defense and midfield are very good, but the Sol's are probably better and the flawless passing game we saw in the 1st half on Wednesday might not be so easy to duplicate in the final.

If Sky Blue is going to win this match, they cannot afford to make any mistakes. The longer the game stays even, the better for Sky Blue. Los Angeles proved they were the best team in the regular season, but we started to see some vulnerability toward the end of the season. Still, you have to believe they will be prepared for this match. The team from Jersey plays with a lot of heart, but I'm not sure that will be enough against the Sol. And you just have the feeling that if a goal is needed late, that Marta will be able to do it just by sheer will.