September 22, 2010

WPS Super Semifinal - Boston vs. Philadelphia

Philadelphia Independence (10-10-4) at Boston Breakers (10-8-6)
Soldiers Field Soccer Stadium, Cambridge, MA – September 23 (8 pm ET)

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

Boston: GK-Alyssa Naeher, Ashley Phillips; D-Amy LePeilbet, Ifeoma Dieke, Alex Scott, Stephanie Cox, Kasey Moore, Taryn Hemmings; MF-Kristine Lilly, Jordan Angeli, Lindsay Tarpley, Liz Bogus, Chioma Igwe; F-Kelly Smith, Lauren Cheney, Laura del Rio, Fabiana.

Previous Meetings (2010)
April 18 – Philadelphia 1 @ Boston 1
July 4 – Boston 2 @ Philadelphia 1
August 8 – Boston 2 @ Philadelphia 2
August 29 – Boston 2 @ Philadelphia 1

Boston is 5-6-1 at home with a 21-17 edge in goals.
Philadelphia is 3-8-2 on the road being outscored 13-20.

Top Performers in Series
Magnusdottir (2 goals), Rodriguez (1 goal), Falk (1 goal), Lohman (1 goal), Sanderson (1 assist), Lindsey (1 assist), Seger (1 assist), LeBlanc (4 games, 1.75 goals against).

Boston: Smith (3 goals, 2 assists), Cheney (2 goals), Cox (1 goal, 1 assist), Lilly (1 goal, 1 assist), Naeher (3 games, 1.33 goals against), Phillips (1 game, 1.00 goals against).


Val Henderson (or Karina LeBlanc) vs. Alyssa Naeher

Coach Paul Riley surprised me a little by going with the lesser experienced Henderson over LeBlanc in the playoff opener and it paid off with Henderson earning the shutout. To be fair, she wasn’t tested all that much, but any shutout under the pressure of playoff competition is praise worthy. Interestingly, LeBlanc started all four of the meetings against the Breakers this season, so if Henderson gets the start, it will be her first action against Boston.

Alyssa Naeher has been Boston’s starting keeper for the last two-thirds of the season and she was in goal for the two Breaker wins over the Independence. Naeher posted three shutouts in her last eight starts of the season, so she has been coming on as the season progressed.

There have been no shutouts in the matches between these two teams. In the battle of the two young keepers, I see it as being pretty even.

Allison Falk, Nikki Krzysik, Frida Magnusdottir, and Estelle Johnson (or Heather Mitts or Sara Larsson) vs. Amy LePeilbet, Ifeoma Dieke, Alex Scott, and Stephanie Cox.

The Independence defense hadn’t posted many shutouts this season, but they played a strong match and got one when they needed it against the Freedom. However, they were facing a Freedom offense that is often heavily dependent on one player. Boston presents a whole different problem with two strong forwards and several offensive-minded midfielders. Stopping both Kelly Smith and Lauren Cheney might prove a tougher task. I expect a fairly physical confrontation between Philly’s tough back line and Boston’s forwards.

Boston’s back line couldn’t offer much more in experience. LePeilbet is the two-time WPS Defender of the Year and a mainstay on the USWNT. Cox has extensive USWNT experience as well. Scott is regarded as one of the best outside defenders in Europe and Dieke plays for the Scottish National Team. This might be the top back line in WPS.

Magnusdottir gave Boston fits in one of their matches, but even with the Independence defense coming off of a strong game against Washington, you have to give the Breakers the edge here. The experience is mind-boggling and with LePeilbet in the middle, they will be a tough team to beat.

Lori Lindsey, Caroline Seger, Tina DiMartino, and Jen Buczkowski vs.
Kristine Lilly, Jordan Angeli, and Lindsay Tarpley.

When it comes to attacking midfielders and forwards for the Boston Breakers, the line is pretty much blurred. Smith, Tarpley, Lilly, and Fabiana can be considered either when it comes to positioning. The “defensive” midfielder of the group is Angeli, but she finished as the Breakers’ second leading goal scorer for the season with seven goals. Tarpley has had a strong season coming off of a serious injury and her arrival from St. Louis along with the insertion of Angeli into the lineup sparked Boston’s turnaround. Whether considered a forward or midfielder, Lilly usually does most of her damage from the wing, where she is adept at pinpoint crosses. Boston does miss Leslie Osborne who suffered a season-ending injury toward the latter part of the campaign.

The Independence has to consider their midfield as their strength. The absence of Lohman will hurt, but Philadelphia is still loaded with Lindsey, Seger, and DiMartino. Buczkowski is a rugged defensive mid and Seger isn’t afraid to mix it up as well. But also note that Buczkowski has received three yellows against Boston, ending in one ejection. Both Lindsey and Seger are in the WPS top six in assists for 2010. This midfield helped stymie Washington in the 2nd half of their playoff match and if they could control this match anywhere as well, they just might be headed to California this weekend.

This is a really tough call on advantage. Lindsey, Seger, and DiMartino have a combined 7 goals and 13 assists, not counting DiMartino’s assist in the first round. Lilly, Tarpley, and Angeli have a combined 14 goals and 9 assists. Again, I have to call this virtually even.

Amy Rodriguez and Lianne Sanderson vs. Kelly Smith, Lauren Cheney, and Fabiana (or Laura del Rio).

It’s the speed of Rodriguez and Sanderson against the power of Smith and Cheney. Early in the season, the talk would have been about the return of Rodriguez to Boston, the team that traded her away. But she scored 12 goals this season and has come into her own as one of the league’s premier forwards, so I think it would be a disservice to her to make much of that now.

Smith and Cheney have both had success against the Independence this season. Smith scored three goals (including a penalty) and added two assists in her four appearances against Philadelphia. Cheney notched two goals of her own. It’s much harder stopping a team with multiple weapons and Philadelphia has had trouble with such teams this year, going 0-5-2 against the Breakers and Gold Pride combined. Smith is one of the most skilled players in the world and one of the toughest as well. Cheney is one of the best young forwards in the world and has very few peers with her back to the goal.

The Independence forwards have been limited to just one goal (Rodriguez) and one assist (Sanderson) on the same goal when the teams met in July. They must make a difference in this match if Philadelphia is to win. Games like Sunday’s against the Freedom would have frustrated Rodriguez a year ago. It speaks to her maturity as a soccer player that she didn’t let a few near misses get her down and her tenacity paid off in the 120th minute of that match. Sanderson has been both a starter and a key sub for Philly. Lohman’s injury pushed her into the starting lineup against Washington, but it almost seemed like she was less of a factor in that role. I still like the speed and excitement she can bring to the team.

Both teams have other players that could make a difference. Danesha Adams could see late action for the Independence, while del Rio and Fabiana could very well be factors for the Breakers.

I have to give the edge to Smith and the Breakers at forward. Smith has a world of experience and Boston’s forwards have had a lot of success against Philadelphia. Still, it would not surprise me to see Rodriguez or Sanderson get behind Boston’s defense a couple of times in this match, which could test Naeher. The Breaker defense, while very good, is not invincible.

Paul Riley vs. Tony DiCicco

It’s hard to argue with the success of either coach this season. Riley took an expansion team and instantly made them into playoff contenders. DiCicco took a team that looked dead in May and coached them to 2nd place in the turnaround of the season.

It’s hard to pick one over the other, so I’ll call it even.

The Breakers didn’t exactly have a convincing home record at 5-6-1, but they were 5-2 over their last seven home games, so you can probably throw the season’s record out the window. This will be a different field for them, however, so the advantages of knowing the playing surface from playing on it for several months is not one that the Breakers will enjoy in this match.

The Independence had a lot of problems on the road this season and lost their final three road matches of the regular season, scoring only three goals in their final six road matches. Their three road victories were all over non-playoff teams, although they did manage a tie in their only trip to Boston this year. And Philly does have a playoff game under their belt, while Thursday night’s contest will be the first ever for Boston.

Much will be made of the short rest for Philadelphia after playing on Sunday afternoon. However, this didn’t seem to faze the Independence in the least during the regular season. They played seven matches on four days of rest or less and managed an impressive 4-1-2 record in those matches. Two of the wins and the loss were on occasions where they had short rest, while their opponent had a full week or more. But none of those matches were after a long season and after a 120 minute pressure-packed match. Paul Riley will have to use his substitutions wisely.

The victory over Washington should give the Independence some momentum, but Boston has been on a long hot streak, going 10-3-2 over their last 15 matches. However, it should also be noted that the Breakers were shut out in their final two matches. I would give a slight edge in intangibles to the Breakers based on the home field, not having to travel, and longer rest. But remember Sky Blue in 2009…

My Prediction
I missed the playoff opener, not thinking it would turn into a defensive struggle and not thinking that the Indpendence could win such a game. My mistake, but I just think there are too many little things going against them here. I like Smith’s experience and Boston’s back line.
Boston Breakers 2, Philadelphia Independence 1.