August 14, 2009

WPS Playoffs-Sky Blue FC at Washington Freedom

Sky Blue FC (7-8-5) at Washington (8-7-5)
Saturday, August 15th, 4 pm ET
Maryland SoccerPlex
Televised on Fox Sports Net and Comcast Sports Net.

Season Series: Washington took the season series with 2 wins and a tie.
5/23/09-Washington 2, Sky Blue 1 (RFK Stadium)
7/15/09-Washington 4, Sky Blue 4 (Yurcak Field)
8/8/09-Washington 3, Sky Blue 1 (Maryland SoccerPlex)

Top Performers in the Series:
Washington-Lisa DeVanna (4 goals, 1 assist), Abby Wambach (2 goals, 2 assists), Cat Whitehill (2 goals), Sonia Bompastor (1 goal, 2 assists), Rebecca Moros (1 assist), Ali Krieger (1 assist), Erin McLeod (2.00 GA)
Sky Blue-Natasha Kai (2 goals, 1 assist), Rosana (2 goals, 1 assist), Kacey White (2 goals), Heather O'Reilly (1 assist), Keeley Dowling (1 assist), Jenni Branam (3.00 GA)

Possible Starting Lineups:
Washington Freedom (Coach-Jim Gabarra)
G-Erin McLeod (1.43 GA, 3 shutouts)
D-Sarah Senty
D-Cat Whitehill (3 goals, 2 assists)
D-Becky Sauerbrunn (1 goal)
D-Ali Krieger (1 assist)
M-Homare Sawa (3 goals)
M-Lori Lindsey (2 goals, 1 assist)
M-Allie Long (2 goals)
M-Rebecca Moros (2 goals, 1 assist)
F-Abby Wambach (8 goals, 5 assists)
F-Lisa DeVanna (6 goals, 5 assists)
Unavailable due to Euros-Sonia Bompastor (4 goals, 6 assists)
Top Subs-Jill Gilbeau, Joanna Lohman, Alex Singer, Kristen DeDycker, Emily Janss

Sky Blue FC (Coach Christie Rampone)
G-Jenni Branam (1.09 GA, 6 shutouts)
D-Keeley Dowling (3 assists)
D-Jen Buczkowski
D-Christie Rampone
D-Meghan Schnur (2 assists)
M-Yael Averbuch
M-Collette McCallum (3 assists)
M-Heather O'Reilly (2 goals, 3 assists)
M-Rosana (5 goals, 1 assist)
F-Natasha Kai (6 goals, 1 assist)
F-Kacey White (3 goals)
Unavailable due to Euros-Anita Asante (starting defender)
Top Subs-Kelly Parker, Julianne Sitch, Kerri Hanks, Noelle Keselica, Katie Hooker

Game Analysis
To this point, Washington has controlled the series and scored pretty much at will against Sky Blue. Sky Blue lost both contests on the Freedom's home turf and will be on the road again in this contest. It's expected to be a warm sunny day, so fatigue and substitutions could be a key in this match as well. Washington is the top offensive club in the WPS with 32 goals scored, while Sky Blue is one of the better defensive teams. Washington is the hotter team coming into this game, winning 4 of their last 5, while Sky Blue is 2-2-1 in their last 5 matches.

Both teams will be dealing with the loss of key players to the Euros. Washington will be without Sonia Bompastor, who has played all over the field and is usually the engine that makes the Freedom run. Sky Blue will be without perhaps their top defender in Anita Asante.

The Freedom will start Erin McLeod in goal. After early season problems for the Freedom, McLeod stabilized the keeper situation and has performed well in spite of her 1.43 goals against average. On defense, Cat Whitehill and Becky Sauerbrunn will be two of the starters. Whitehill is probably the best offensive center back in the league and is a weapon on long free kicks. Sauerbrunn is one of two Freedom players to play every minute this season, the other being Homare Sawa. The outside backs will probably be determined by how Jim Gabarra wishes to deal with Sonia Bompastor's absence. Last week, he started Sarah Senty and Ali Krieger. However, Gabarra could move Krieger up to midfield to replace Bompastor and start either Jill Gilbeau or Alex Singer at outside back.

In the midfield, Homare Sawa and Lori Lindsey are constants. Both are solid, but Sawa suddenly came to life offensively late in the year with 3 goals in the last 5 games. Rebecca Moros plays kind of a hybrid midfielder/forward position and loves to pressure the opposing back line. The other midfielder could be Allie Long, who battled a toe injury for the latter part of the season, veteran Joanna Lohman, or they could move up the speedy Krieger. There is no doubt at the two forward positions and they may be the best tandem in the league. Abby Wambach is the power with 8 goals and Lisa DeVanna is the speed with 6 goals. Sky Blue hasn't really been able to contain either one.

Sky Blue will have Jenni Branam in goal. She is smallish, but very quick and very active in the penalty area. She will surely miss having Anita Asante in front of her. On the back line, three of the starters are certain. Christie Rampone will be one center back, while Meghan Schnur will be one outside back. Rampone, in spite of her age, is still one of the best defenders in the WPS. Keeley Dowling has played mostly outside this year, but she has played inside also and with Wambach being a primary concern, Dowling might start inside because of her great leaping ability. If Dowling plays outside, then Jen Buczkowski will probably be the other center back. If Dowling plays center, then Rampone might use Katie Hooker or Julianne Sitch outside.

At midfield, Sky Blue will almost have to start Yael Averbuch to combat Wambach's size and strength. Rosana and Heather O'Reilly are both scoring threats from the midfield and should give Washington problems, especially since Bompastor will be gone. In spite of not breaking out offensively, O'Reilly is a constant threat and she can dominate when she is in top form. The other starting midfielder will probably be either Aussie Collette McCallum or Canadian Kelly Parker. They split time in last week's match against the Freedom. Up front, Natasha Kai has speed to burn and is one of the most dangerous forwards in the WPS. She will need to capitalize on her opportunities on Saturday. Kacey White, who is an underrated and solid performer at the other forward spot, rounds out the starters for SBFC.

On any ball in the air toward the penalty area, you can bet that Abby Wambach will be in the middle wreaking havoc with the Branam and her defenders. Looking through the tapes and highlight reels, I estimated that an astounding 28 of the 32 goals scored by the Freedom were from within 12 yards of the goal. In fact, nearly half were from the 6 yard box in. Only 3 were scored from outside the penalty area, one early in the season by Lori Lindsey, one off of a set piece play by Cat Whitehill, and one by Homare Sawa late in the season against FC Gold Pride on a rebound. By contrast, the Freedom gave up several goals from the edge of the penalty area and beyond, including one from Sky Blue's Rosana last weekend.

Sky Blue hasn't had all that much of a problem scoring on Washington either. Their speed at forward and midfield can cause a lot of problems to the middle of the Freedom defense, which isn't particularly fast. Kai, O'Reilly, White, and Rosana should keep the Freedom defense on their toes.

Washington Freedom Keys:
1) Get the ball in the air toward the goal. Not only is Washington strong in the air, but they are going against one of the shortest keepers in the league in Jen Branam. If they loft high crosses into the box, Abby Wambach can easily outjump Branam to the point Jen will have trouble punching the ball out, let alone grabbing it. The Freedom will be missing their best server in Bompastor, but Whitehill can be just as dangerous.
2) Time your runs. Lisa DeVanna scored four goals against Sky Blue this year, but she has a habit of going offsides. DeVanna is 2nd only to Eni Aluko in being called offside this season. Sky Blue is one of the best teams in the WPS at the offsides trap, but they can be burned. If she can time her runs, there is no one on the Sky Blue defense that is going to catch her and she should be able to get behind their back line for at least one or two good scoring opportunities.
3) Get defensive help from the midfield. With offensive threats like Kai, O'Reilly, and Rosana facing them, the Freedom midfield is going to have to get back to help their back line defend. Sky Blue managed to score 6 goals against Washington in 3 matches.

Sky Blue Keys:
1) Keep the Freedom's set pieces to a minimum. Washington has scored 7 times on set pieces and 10 goals on headers. Even with Bompastor gone, this is one of their strengths. Sky Blue's clearances must be strong and they can't allow rebounds.
2) Control the midfield. This is one area where I believe Sky Blue should have the advantage, especially with Bompastor out. If Sky Blue can control the midfield and keep the Freedom bottled up in their own end for much of the game, they have a chance. O'Reilly, Parker, McCallum, and Rosana can put a lot of offensive pressure on the Freedom back line. And I'm still waiting for Yael Averbuch to get one of those strong-legged bombs in the back of the net.
3) Contain DeVanna and Wambach. Well that's easy for me to say, not so easy to do. DeVanna has scored 4 goals against Sky Blue this year and Wambach has scored two. Sky Blue's back line cannot allow these two to run amuck. They will probably need to assign either Yael Averbuch because she can matchup in size, or Keeley Dowling because she has great leaping ability, to shadow Wambach. Abby has scored 5 goals in her last 4 matches.

Even though Sonia Bompastor is one of the best all round players in the WPS, the loss of Anita Asante may be a bigger loss to Sky Blue. SBFC has had enough trouble stopping Washington and the loss of a top defender will complicate matters worse. The three matches between these two teams have seen a lot of scoring, but playoff matches tend to be conservatively played and lower scoring. Sky Blue may have come farther from the start of the season than any other team, but they have a lot going against them in this game. They're on the road against a team they haven't beaten and they haven't shown that they can stop them. There have been several matches where the Freedom have found a way to win late in the game and I just can't see Sky Blue containing both Wambach and DeVanna the entire match. My prediction is that Washington will defeat Sky Blue 2-1.