August 18, 2009

WPS Super Semifinal-Sky Blue FC at Saint Louis Athletica

Sky Blue FC (8-8-5) at Saint Louis (8-7-5)
Wednesday, August 19th, 6 pm CT
AB Soccer Park in Fenton, Missouri

Season Series: Saint Louis took all 3 matches in the season series between the two teams.
6/7/09-Saint Louis 1, Sky Blue FC 0 (Soccer Park)
6/28/09-Saint Louis 2, Sky Blue FC 1 (Yurcak Field)
7/22/09-Saint Louis 1, Sky Blue FC 0 (Soccer Park)

Top Performers in the Series:
Saint Louis-Eniola Aluko (2 goals, 1 assist), Amanda Cinalli (1 goal), Elise Weber (1 goal), Kendall Fletcher (1 assist), Melissa Tancredi (1 assist), Hope Solo (1 shutout), Jillian Loyden (1 shutout).
Sky Blue FC-Julianne Sitch (1 goal), Jenni Branam (2 games, 1.50 goals against)

Possible Starting Lineups:
Saint Louis Athletica (Coach-Jorge Barcellos)
G-Hope Solo (0.82 GA, 8 shutouts)
D-Melissa Tancredi (2 assists)
D-Kia McNeill
D-Tina Ellertson
D-Elise Weber (1 goal)
M-Kendall Fletcher (3 assists)
M-Lori Chalupny (2 goals, 1 assist)
M-Angie Woznuk
M-Amanda Cinalli (2 goals, 1 assist)
F-Sarah Walsh (1 goal, 2 assists)
F-Christie Welsh (3 goals)
Unavailable due to Euros-Eniola Aluko (6 goals, 4 assists), Sara Larsson (starting defender)
Top Subs-Daniela, Niki Cross, Stephanie Logterman, Lisa Stoia, Erin Walter, Jillian Loyden

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 (1 assist)
M-Collette McCallum (3 assists)
M-Heather O'Reilly (2 goals, 3 assists)
M-Rosana (5 goals, 1 assist)
F-Natasha Kai (7 goals, 1 assist) or Kerri Hanks (2 goals, 1 assist)
F-Kacey White (3 goals, 1 assist)
Unavailable due to Euros: Anita Asante (starting defender), Karen Bardsley (backup keeper)
Top Subs-Kelly Parker, Julianne Sitch, Francielle, Noelle Keselica, Katie Hooker, Cori Alexander

Note: Statistics include playoff matches.

Game Analysis:
If you looked at the record between these two teams, you would get the mistaken idea that this series has been one sided. Maybe the results have been all for Athletica, but the play on the field has been about as even as possible. In all three of the previous meetings, Athletica has jumped on top, twice early in the match and once early in the 2nd half. That has been a pattern followed by Athletica most of the year when successful. Sky Blue did come back to tie their home match, only to see it slip away on an unlikely high lob shot from a bad angle by Elise Weber.

This match has a little extra drama to it, because of the trade between the two teams. Sky Blue sent Sarah Walsh to Athletica for Kerri Hanks and Francielle in a big midseason trade. Hanks scored the game winning goal in a regular season match against Chicago and Francielle was the hero over the weekend against the Freedom. Walsh has yet to hit the net for Athletica, but she has come close and does have an assist to her credit. All three players could influence the outcome of Wednesday's match. Also, this match will be greatly affected by who's missing, notably Athletica's leading scorer, Eniola Aluko, and Sky Blue's top defender, Anita Asante.

If you had to personify Sky Blue, you would say that they are the Rodney Dangerfield of the WPS. They don't get a lot of respect, but they sure know how to fight. Take round one of the playoffs for instance. After breaking on top 1-0, Washington tied the score in the 78th minute and on top of that, Jen Branam was so banged up, she didn't take free kicks for the remainder of the game. Branam hung tough and then seldom used midfielder, Francielle, hit the shot of the day from outside the penalty area to send SBFC into the Super Semifinal.

The big question for Christie Rampone is whether or not she will repeat her strategy from Saturday in which she started Hanks for Natasha Kai, in an effort to preserve her star striker for the end of the contest. Kai ended up scoring less than a minute after entering the game in the 2nd half. In an interview with Tom Timmerman of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Rampone said, "it will be a tactical decision closer to game time." If Kai doesn't start, Hanks will repeat her role and start beside Kacey White, who assisted on Kai's goal.

Both teams have excellent midfields and both are led by old North Carolina teammates, Heather O'Reilly and Lori Chalupny. Along side O'Reilly is one of Sky Blue's top scoring threats, Rosana. Yael Averbuch will handle the holding midfielder position. The other midfielder will be either Collette McCallum or Kelly Parker, both of whom will likely see a lot of action, no matter which one starts. Francielle has suddenly become a top option at midfield off the bench.

Defensively, it's Keeley Dowling, Christie Rampone, and Meghan Schnur, all of whom are solid players. Jen Buczkowski will start in place of Anita Asante. Jenni Branam is tough and quick in goal. She has posted 6 shutouts for the season and it appears she will be ready to go for Wednesday night's match, in spite of getting pretty banged up on Saturday.

For Athletica, it always starts with defense. Hope Solo has posted 8 shutouts and has given up just two goals in her last 6 matches. The back line is led by Tina Ellertson, with Kia McNeill joining her in the center and Melissa Tancredi and Elise Weber on the outside. It is also likely that Stephanie Logterman will see playing time at defender in this match.

There is no doubt the trade for Kendall Fletcher was very instrumental in Athletica being where they are today. Fletcher has 3 assists, but more importantly, she has done a fine job in shutting down some of the top offensive players in the WPS. Athletica's captain, Lori Chalupny is a world class midfielder and definitely the heart of this team. Amanda Cinalli has given Athletica another offensive weapon from the midfield and Angie Woznuk rounds out that unit. Sarah Walsh will be one starter up front and Athletica is still waiting for her to break through for her first goal. She will probably team with Christie Welsh, who went on a mini scoring run, netting three in her last two matches. Niki Cross will likely be her 2nd half replacement and has scored one herself.

Sky Blue Keys:
1) Keep Athletica off the board early. Saint Louis has outscored their opponents by a margin of 13-3 in the 1st half and has a record of 8-0-3 when scoring in the 1st half. Athletica usually comes out with a lot of energy at the start of the game.
2) Get numbers forward in the attack. Sky Blue are at their best when they get a lot of players forward and pressure opposing defenses. Unlike Athletica, Sky Blue has many scoring options with Kai, White, O'Reilly, and Rosana. Saint Louis has a strong defense, but they can occasionally be forced into making mistakes.
3) Keep the pressure off of Branam. Jen Branam is tough, but it's not certain if she's 100% after Saturday's contest. The Sky Blue defense needs to make it as easy on her as possible. Twice in that match, she had to come 30 yards out of the goal to clear the ball away from an onrushing attacker. I don't know if she will be capable of doing that again this match.

Saint Louis Athletica Keys:
1) Don't gamble too much on defense. Athletica has a very good defense, but they do sometimes gamble at the midfield. Facing a team with a lot of speed, like Sky Blue, they need to make sure that attackers don't get behind them, because of all the Athletica defenders, only Tina Ellertson has the speed to make up ground once she's beat.
2) Shoot high. Jen Branam is a terrific keeper, but she is also one of the shortest keepers in the WPS. The winning goal by Elise Weber at Yurcak Field was not an impressive shot, but it was high and out of the reach of Branam. In addition, Branam is more apt to charge out of her net than any other keeper in the league, leaving her vulnerable to a chip shot. If Athletica aims for the upper corners, they could get a goal there.
3) Finish the game off. While Athletica has played very well in the 1st half, they have all too often let games slip away late. They have given up 9 of the 15 goals against them after the 70th minute. NINE! There have been too many times when Athletica has gone into a defensive shell late in a match and had it backfire on them. It's playoff time now. There are no 2nd chances.

Both teams tend to play low scoring matches and both have strong defenses and top notch goalkeepers. These are also two of the strongest midfields in the league. Sky Blue does get more offense out of their midfield than Saint Louis. Athletica is missing their top offensive player in Eniola Aluko and one has to wonder if she can be replaced. Sky Blue has been a bit unlucky in the three times these two teams have met. Athletica has had problems at times in closing games out. The wild card could be Daniela, if she is healthy enough to see some minutes late in the match. She has a strong shot and could provide a winner if needed.

I look for another low scoring match, possibly going to overtime or penalties. If it does go to penalties, one would expect Solo and Athletica to have the advantage. But remember, in penalty kicks, it's usually on the shooter and not so much on the keeper. If that's the case, Sky Blue would appear to have far better options for their five shooters than Athletica. The loser of the match will have had a fine season and the winner has a date with the Los Angeles Sol on Saturday for the championship.