September 18, 2010

Playoff Preview - Washington Freedom at Philadelphia Independence

Washington Freedom (8-9-7) at Philadelphia Independence (10-10-4)
John A. Ferrell Stadium, West Chester, PA – September 19 (2:30 pm ET)

Probable Rosters:
Washington: GK-Ashlyn Harris, Meghan McCray; D-Cat Whitehill, Nikki Marshall, Becky Sauerbrunn, Rebecca Moros, Brittany Bock, Kristi Eveland; MF-Sonia Bompastor, Sarah Huffman, Homare Sawa, Allie Long, Anita Asante, Beverly Goebel, Jill Gilbeau; F-Abby Wambach, Lene Mykjåland, Christie Welsh.

Philadelphia: GK-Karina LeBlanc, Val Henderson; D-Allison Falk, Nikki Krzysik, Heather Mitts, Holmfridur Magnusdottir, Sara Larsson, Estelle Johnson, Sarah Senty; MF-Lori Lindsey, Caroline Seger, Joanna Lohman, Tina DiMartino, Jen Buczkowski; F-Amy Rodriguez, Lianne Sanderson, Danesha Adams, Lyndsey Patterson.

Previous Meetings (2010)
April 25 – Washington 1 @ Philadelphia 3
May 30 – Philadelphia 1 @ Washington 2
June 26 – Washington 2 @ Philadelphia 3
August 4 – Philadelphia 0 @ Washington 2

Philadelphia is 7-3-2 at home with a 24-16 edge in goals.
Washington is 1-7-4 on the road being outscored 14-21.

Top Performers in Series
Washington: Wambach (4 goals, 1 assist); Mykjåland (1 goal); Moros (1 goal); De Vanna (1 goal); Bompastor (1 assist); Whitehill (1 assist); Welsh (1 assist); Harris (1 game, 1 shutout, 0.00 GAA); McLeod (2 games, 2.00 GAA)

Philadelphia: Rodriguez (3 goals); Sanderson (3 goals); Falk (1 goal); Lindsey (3 assists); Seger (1 assist); Buczkowski (1 assist); V. Henderson (3 games, 1.67 GAA); LeBlanc (1 game, 2.00 GAA).


Ashlyn Harris vs. Karina LeBlanc or Val Henderson

A little over a month ago, I would have given Philadelphia a heavy edge here, but Harris, the rookie out of UNC, had a spectacular month of August and has a 0.57 GAA over her last seven matches. She has posted four shutouts including one over Philadelphia, the only shutout in the series between the two teams.

My guess would be that LeBlanc would start this match, but Henderson started three of the four matches against the Freedom during the season. LeBlanc had the edge in starts this season with 14, but both keepers have identical 1.50 goals against averages. LeBlanc has the edge in experience over both Harris and Henderson, given her time with the Canadian National Team and a season with the Sol. Not to mention, she is the only one of the three that has played in a WPS playoff game before.

Harris has been the hotter goalkeeper, but LeBlanc has the experience, making it a tough call on the advantage. So I’ll call it even.

Cat Whitehill, Nikki Marshall, Becky Sauerbrunn, and Rebecca Moros vs. Allison Falk, Nikki Krzysik, Heather Mitts, and Holmfridur Magnusdottir (or Sara Larsson).

There is some question here about how Paul Riley will configure his defense. He could move Magnusdottir to midfield and have Larsson in the starting lineup.

Whitehill might be the veteran leader and Sauerbrunn might be the steady performer, but Nikki Marshall has been the difference maker here. She has been solid over the latter half of the season and gives the Freedom something they didn’t really have on their back line…speed. After getting torched for 15 goals over a five game span in midseason, this group came together as Marshall returned to the back line, taking what appeared to be the team’s biggest weakness and making it a strong point.

Early in the season, Philadelphia looked like a team that was going to win a lot of low scoring matches. Nearly overnight, they appeared to transform into a high-powered offensive team that would win just by outscoring their opponents. Lately, they haven’t been winning period. The Independence posted only four shutouts during the season and only one after mid-May. This is also a defense that has had trouble containing Abby Wambach.

It's a given that Whitehill is one of the best in the league on long-range free kicks, but ultimately, I think Philly has the better back line when it comes to offense. Falk can be very dangerous on set pieces and if Magnusdottir starts as an outside defender, she can give opponents fits with her flank runs. But overall, a defense’s first job is defense and I think the Freedom have the edge there.

Sonia Bompastor, Sarah Huffman, Allie Long, and Anita Asante or Homare Sawa vs. Lori Lindsey, Caroline Seger, Joanna Lohman, Tina DiMartino, and Jen Buczkowski

This will be one heck of a battle between two very talented midfields. Washington has several veteran steady performers with Huffman, Asante (who may also play defender, her natural position), and Sawa. Bompastor is the quarterback and the engine that makes this team run. Maybe her stats aren’t as gaudy as her 2009 numbers, but make no mistake on her importance to the Freedom. Meanwhile, Allie Long sometimes performs under the radar and it wouldn’t surprise me to see her get a goal or make a big play in a match like this. Brittany Bock gives the Freedom depth at both midfield and defense.

Philadelphia’s midfield definitely has the statistical edge over their Freedom counterparts. Lindsey has two goals and eight assists, Seger has a goal and five assists, Lohman has five goals and DiMartino four goals. That’s a lot of offense out of a midfield. Lindsey and Seger are the heart of this midfield. Both are heavy in international experience and have excellent skills. Lohman has been one the pleasant surprises for the Independence and no one will outwork her on the pitch. DiMartino is one of the more underrated midfielders in the league. Buczkowski is primarily a defensive specialist, who had an excellent playoff run last season with Sky Blue.

I have to give Philadelphia the edge here, because of their offensive arsenal. However, don’t sell Bompastor and company short. The Freedom unit is a veteran group that does the little things to get the job done. Another area where Philadelphia needs to be wary is their tendency to take bad and unnecessary fouls. Seger, Buczkowski, and Magnusdottir have all been red carded this year and Philly was second only to Chicago in fouls committed. They cannot afford to go a player down in this match nor can they afford to give up a lot of set pieces to a Freedom team that is very adept at exploiting such opportunities. Edge to Philadelphia, but not by a lot.

Abby Wambach and Lene Mykjåland vs. Amy Rodriguez and Lianne Sanderson.

Philadelphia often goes with a lone forward to start the match, inserting Sanderson at halftime or early in 2nd half to provide additional offense.

In both cases, the star performers for each team have stood out in this series. Rodriguez has three goals against the Freedom, while Wambach has four goals and an assist against the Independence, albeit two goals coming on penalties. What we have here are two highly skilled forwards, with totally different skill sets and games, that are often paired together on the USWNT and almost perfectly complement one another. But on this weekend, they will be on opposite sides.

Rodriguez game is speed and precision. She is one of the fastest forwards in the league and this season, she improved her runs greatly, both in timing and in the angle of the run. Wambach's game is more power, often fighting off defenders to get a shot off. And there is simply not a better player in the world when the ball is in the air. Not only are her headers normally on frame, they have more power behind them than some players can shoot with their feet. That’s not to take anything away from Wambach’s skill, because she is enormously talented, but the power game is when she is at her best.

Mykjåland has scored four goals for the Freedom this year and you can’t discount her experience internationally. The wildcard in this matchup may be young Lianne Sanderson. She scored five goals this season, but three of them were against the Freedom. Sanderson will often come off the bench, fresh and full of energy, and exploit tired defenders in the 2nd half of games. Of her three goals against the Freedom, one was in the 67th minute and the other two came in stoppage time after she had come off the bench as a 2nd half sub.

I have to give an edge to the Freedom here. Wambach has been through the wars with over 10 years of international experience. Big games are the norm for her. Washington is likely to get a number of set pieces in this match and Wambach will have opportunities. Rodriguez came into her own this year, but she has scored only one goal in her last eight matches and none in her last five. Edge to the Freedom, but beware of Sanderson late.

Jim Gabarra vs. Paul Riley

Paul Riley was WPS Coach of the Year and has to be given a lot of credit for preparing his team and building them into a competitive side very early on. But he hasn’t been able to find the answers lately as the Independence are on a four game losing streak, being outscored 9-2 over that stretch. In his defense, Philadelphia was probably hurt more by international call ups than most teams, losing players such as Seger, Larsson, and Magnusdottir for quite a few matches.

Jim Gabarra has a lot of experience and is a capable coach. He went through a similar bad stretch in June and July, with a 0-6-4 record over a ten game winless streak. However, he has managed to right the ship just in time, with the Freedom making a nice run down the stretch to edge out Sky Blue for the final playoff berth. Give him a lot of credit for the decision to move Marshall back to defense where the need was far greater than at forward.

I’d say it’s a virtual wash here, with neither side having much of an advantage.

The Independence have the home field advantage in this one and in the four meetings between these two teams, the home team has won on each occasion. Philly was a stronger team at home, with one of their losses coming against regular season champs Gold Pride and the other two losses were one goal decisions against Boston. Washington has a terrible road record, with their only road victory coming in May against Atlanta.

The Freedom have one thing going for them, though, and that’s momentum. They played a lot of meaningful games down the stretch, finishing the season off at a 4-1-2 clip. They are a confident squad right now, while the Independence have been a bit listless as of late. Both teams are pretty experienced, with the one area of question possibly being young Ashlyn Harris in goal, but she has performed admirably in a number of big games during the past month.

Again, this is pretty much a wash, with Philadelphia having an edge with the home field advantage and Washington having the edge in momentum and confidence.

My Prediction
My feeling is that the Independence have had trouble scoring lately, while Washington has been in big game mode for quite some time, given their battle for the final playoff spot. Playoff games often come down to one play at the right time and with set pieces being a strong suit for the Freedom and Abby Wambach, that tilts the scales their way.
Washington Freedom 2, Philadelphia Independence 1