September 25, 2010

WPS Championship - FC Gold Pride vs. Philadelphia

Philadelphia Independence (10-10-4) at FC Gold Pride (16-3-5)
Pioneer Stadium, Hayward, CA – September 26 (2:30 pm ET, 1:30 pm CT, 11:30 am PT)

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

FC Gold Pride: GK-Nicole Barnhart, Brittany Cameron; D-Rachel Buehler, Candace Chapman, Ali Riley, Kandace Wilson, Kristen Graczyk, Niki Cross; MF-Shannon Boxx, Becky Edwards, Camille Abily, Carrie Dew, Kimberly Yokers; F-Marta, Christine Sinclair, Kelley O’Hara, Tiffeny Milbrett, Kiki Bosio.

Previous Meetings (2010)
June13 – FC Gold Pride 3 @ Philadelphia 1
July 17 – Philadelphia 0 @ FC Gold Pride 2
September 11 – Philadelphia 1 @ FC Gold Pride 4

FC Gold Pride is 8-1-3 at home with a 20-8 edge in goals.
Philadelphia is 3-8-2 on the road being outscored 13-20 in the regular season, 1-0 on the road in the playoffs.

Top Performers in Series
Philadelphia: DiMartino (1 goal), Sanderson ( 1 goal), Lindsey (1 assist), Patterson (1 assist), Henderson (2 games, 3.00 goals against, LeBlanc (1 game, 3.00 goal against).

FC Gold Pride: Marta (3 goals, 4 assists), Sinclair (4 goals, 1assist), O’Hara (2 goals, 1 assist), Boxx (1 assist), Abily (1 assist), Gulbrandsen (1 assist), Barnhart (2 games, 1.06 goals against), Cameron (1 game, 1 shutout, 0.00 goals against).

Val Henderson vs. Nicole Barnhart

You can’t argue much with the results that Henderson has given Philadelphia, just one goal allowed in 240 minutes of playoff soccer. She wasn't tested much in game one and at times, she looked a little unsure in the match against Boston, but overall she has been solid. She is likely to be tested a great deal more by Gold Pride. Henderson faced them twice during the season, giving up two goals in the first and then four in the final match of the regular season. I guess there is still an outside chance that Riley might go with LeBlanc, who is more experienced and started last year’s championship match, but that’s not likely given Henderson’s record so far in the playoffs.

Barnhart, was the WPS Goalkeeper of the Year, with a sparkling 0.77 goals against average and eight shutouts to her credit. She also has USWNT experience, which could help in a match of this importance. She gave up a goal in each of her two starts against the Independence this year. Strangely enough, it was Brittany Cameron who earned the only shutout for FCGP against Philly this season.

Barnhart is experienced and had a great season. Give credit to Henderson for what she’s accomplished so far, but the edge goes to Gold Pride here.

Allison Falk, Nikki Krzysik, Frida Magnusdottir, and Estelle Johnson (or Heather Mitts) vs. Rachel Buehler, Candace Chapman, Ali Riley, and Kandace Wilson.

The Independence defense has done the job so far, but they have had loads of trouble stopping Gold Pride’s attack this season. The most disturbing thing about Thursday’s match was how easily Fabiana was able to get around the Philadelphia defense on several occasions. They can’t have those kind of lapses in this match. Frida Magnusdottir, perhaps Philly’s most versatile weapon, must be careful not to get caught upfield lest the back line gets exposed by the Gold Pride counterattack. Overall, Falk and Krzysik have been solid and the rookie Estelle Johnson has been surprisingly strong, but in this match, they will have to rise to a whole new level to stop the best offense in the league.

Rachel Buehler had an outstanding season in 2010. She leads a Gold Pride back line that has greatly improved over the course of the season. Chapman was a key free agent signee and helped to solidify the defense. Riley and Wilson give Gold Pride two of the most dangerous and perhaps the two fastest outside backs in the league. The Independence midfielders will have to watch flank runs by those two, which could open up the middle for Boxx and Abily.

Again, Philadelphia has done an admirable job to this point. But they haven’t stopped Gold Pride all season and they can’t match their speed. I have to give the edge to Buehler and FCGP.

Lori Lindsey, Caroline Seger, Tina DiMartino, and Jen Buczkowski vs.
Shannon Boxx, Camille Abily, Becky Edwards.

There’s only one player that can say that she’s played every minute of every playoff game ever played in WPS. That’s Jen Buczkowski, who is hoping to be on her second championship team in a row. The Independence midfield has been tough as nails in the playoffs. Lindsey and Seger form the veteran core of perhaps the best midfield in WPS. Tina DiMartino has been impressive, both during the regular season and the postseason. She assisted on both game winners in the playoffs. DiMartino was literally all over the field on Thursday night.

The Gold Pride midfield is strong as well, starting with the great veteran leadership of Shannon Boxx. There is probably not a more respected player in the league and rightfully so. At her best, she can control the pace and flow of the game from her midfield position. She’s a strong defender and gets into the attack very well when opportunities arise. Boxx and Abily combined for 11 assists, although not quite as many as the Lindsey/Seger duo, still quite impressive. Becky Edwards turned in an impressive rookie season, in spite of being overshadowed in a strong rookie class. I think her performance has often been unfairly overlooked this season.

We’ll find out just how much stamina the Independence have in this match. Coming off 240 minutes of soccer in less than a week, they will have to cover a quicker Gold Pride team that has the weapons to spread the field very effectively. I absolutely love Philly’s midfield, but it would be hard to understate the importance of Boxx in this match. I would say that the midfields are as even as they can get, with maybe an infinitesimal edge to the Independence.

Amy Rodriguez and Lianne Sanderson vs. Marta, Christine Sinclair, and Kelley O’Hara (or Tiffeny Milbrett).

In spite of not scoring, I thought Rodriguez had a heck of a game against Boston. On Philly’s first goal, she ran down a ball in the midfield, quickly got the ball to DiMartino and then had great vision to find Seger alone on the right side, earning an assist. On another play she worked against the defense until she saw an opening, sending a nice ball through to Seger, whose first touch was a little heavy. Throughout the match, she was dangerous. But she has not had much success against Gold Pride this season. She missed one match while on the USWNT and in the other two, she did not figure in the scoring.

Sanderson needs to be more dangerous in this match than she was against Boston. It appeared that she was playing kind of a half midfielder/half forward position on Thursday. Since the Independence midfield will have to hang back farther to defend against Gold Pride’s many weapons, Sanderson may become Rodriguez’s primary support in this match. Controversy or not, Danesha Adam’s play on the winning goal was still exceptional. Look for her to be a factor late in this match as well, especially if the Independence can stay close.

Meanwhile, Gold Pride’s forwards have simply destroyed Philadelphia this season. Marta, Sinclair, and O’Hara have combined for nine goals and six assists in just three matches. Not much more can be said about Marta that hasn’t already been said. She is the best player in the world, perhaps the fastest player in the world, and certainly as determined as they come. She has figured in seven of the nine goals that Gold Pride has scored against the Independence in 2010. I honestly don’t think Philly’s back line has enough speed to stay with her for an entire match.

And if Marta wasn’t enough to deal with, then there’s Sinclair who scored four goals against Philly, including at least one in each game. There’s O’Hara, one of the most exciting young forwards in the league with two goals to her credit against Sunday’s opponent. And on top of that, there’s the crafty veteran, Tiffeny Milbrett, to cause opposing defenses even more problems. Add to that Kiki Bosio and her flip throws and you have the best offense in WPS.

Rodriguez has truly become a top notch forward this season. But Gold Pride’s forwards are fast, talented, and there are just too many weapons there to stop. The edge has to go to Gold Pride here.

Paul Riley vs. Albertin Montoya

I think Riley has done a magnificent job coaching his team to two overtime victories. After a sluggish finish to the regular season, his team has come out and played two strong matches.

Many have discounted Montoya’s coaching performance, saying that any team that has Marta should win. While there is some truth to the fact that Marta has had a great effect on Gold Pride’s success, Montoya has had a lot to do with it as well. This will be his first playoff match, so it will be interesting to see how he matches up against Riley in a tactical chess match.

Call it dead even.

Gold Pride has been aces at home, going 8-1-3 over the course of the season. The only negative is that they were inexplicably blanked three times at home, all of those in Pioneer Stadium. Philadelphia has not been a good road team, but they beat the odds on Thursday night in Boston. In the two contests they played in northern California this year, they were beaten twice and neither game was really that close.

As far as playing three games in a week, I think that works both ways. It will certainly hurt that Philadelphia has had to play 240 minutes of soccer to get here. But there is something to be said for having two games of playoff experience under your belt. The two week layoff may also hurt a Gold Pride team that was clicking quite nicely at the end of the season. All you have to do is look at 2009 and the Sky Blue/LA Sol matchup.

Slight edge to Gold Pride for the home field advantage and in light of Philly’s game and travel fatigue.

My Prediction
It’s hard to see Gold Pride losing this match, but the same was said about the Los Angeles Sol last season. Surely though, Marta and Boxx remember last year’s game and will make sure that it doesn’t happen again. In the three regular season matches, there was no scoring in the first 39 minutes of any of the games. Gold Pride scored at the end of the first half in each of those matches. Philadelphia cannot afford a lapse in concentration toward the end of the half.

I think the first goal in this match will be critical. Having played so much soccer, it will be much harder for the Independence to come from behind in this one. They need to follow Sky Blue’s blueprint in last year’s championship. After the early goal and Falk’s subsequent red card, the Sol seemed almost in a daze for nearly 25 minutes before reality and urgency settled in. Gold Pride is a highly confident bunch and feeling the sting of an early goal, especially against a team that they handled so easily in three previous meetings, might throw a shock into them.

But putting one on the board before Marta and company do the same is easier said than done. Gold Pride has throttled Rodriguez, while their speedy forwards have ripped the Independence defense. Unless Paul Riley has a few more tricks up his sleeve, I see it…
FC Gold Pride 3, Philadelphia Independence 1.