July 22, 2011

WPS Weekend Preview: July 23-24

As we head down the stretch in the WPS regular season, there is a full schedule this weekend. Western New York is in a tight battle with Philadelphia for first place. Boston, Sky Blue, and magicJack are battling for the two remaining playoffs spots and Atlanta is trying to keep their slim playoff hopes alive.

Philadephia at Sky Blue (7 pm eastern, Saturday)
Yurcak Field, Piscataway, New Jersey.

Sky Blue FC (3-5-4)
Coach: Jim Gabarra
Goalkeepers: J. Branam, K. Arnold, K. Bardsley (questionable).
Defenders: C. Dew, A. Asante, B. Taylor, K. Fletcher, D. Johnson.
Midfielders: H. O'Reilly, T. Heath, A. Long, T. Sjogran, C. Blank, A. Kerr, A. Mautz.
Forwards: Adriana, C. Nogueira, E. Aluko, L. Kalmari.
Not active: E. Guthrie, L. Johnson (injured), M. Wenino, J. Clark, S. Gray, P. Hogewoning.

Philadelphia Independence (8-2-3)
Coach: Paul Riley
Goalkeepers: N. Barnhart, V. Henderson.
Defenders: N. Krzysik, K. McNeill, L. Robinson, E. Johnson.
Midfielders: J. Buczkowski, C. DiMartino, S. Farrelly, L. Lindsey, J. Lohman.
Forwards: T. Kai, A. Rodriguez, L. Sanderson, D. Adams, L. del Rio.
Not active: R. Jones, L. Barnes, A. Falk, L. Fowlkes, V. Boquete, G. DiMartino, H. Magnusdottir.

The Philadelphia Independence need to win this game to keep their hold on first place, while Sky Blue is in a very close battle with magicJack and Boston for playoff berths.

While most of the World Cup players will be back for this game, some of them may not play a full 90 minutes or start for that matter. The biggest surprise was that Veronica Boquete, who has played so well over the last month, is not listed as being active for Philadelphia per the roster report (which has been known to be incorrect from time to time).

Coach Paul Riley surely has a pleasant problem at goalkeeper. USWNT keeper Nicole Barnhart has returned and is available, but backup Val Henderson has played very well while Barnhart was gone. In fact, Henderson has posted four shutouts in just eight starts and the Independence have a 7-0-1 record with her in goal.

Defensively, Philly has a strong, physical back line, led by center backs Nikki Krzysik and Kia McNeill. Midfielder Jen Buczkowski is also a strong defensive player. While midfielder Lori Lindsey has barely played this season because of national team duty, Tina DiMartino and Sinead Farrelly are having strong seasons with a combined three goals and three assists between them.

Tasha Kai is now tied for the league lead with eight goals. She has plenty of support in the attacking end with Amy Rodriguez, Lianne Sanderson, Laura del Rio, Danesha Adams, and Boquete.

It seems as though Sky Blue is in this position every year. They head into the final third of the season with the playoffs in doubt. In 2009, they barely made the playoffs, then marched through three teams to win it all. In 2010, they fell just short of a playoff berth and here we are again in 2011.

Jen Branam has been in goal for 10 of the 12 Sky Blue matches this season. She is quick, agile, fearless, and adventuresome. The defense for SBFC this season can best be described as inconsistent. At times they look solid, but there have been some bumps in the road. Anita Asante's return from the World Cup should help steady the situation.

Sky Blue has always featured a very good midfield. With returning USWNT players Heather O'Reilly and Tobin Heath, along with Swedish international Therese Sjogran, we should see some improvement in their midfield play for the final six matches. Meanwhile, Carolyn Blank has provided solid defense in the midfield and has a goal to her credit.

Scoring has been a problem for Sky Blue. Again, there is a lack of consistency. No Sky Blue player has scored more than three and they have scored just 16 times on the season, with two being penalty kicks and one being an own goal by their opponent. Casey Nogueira has been the most productive forward with three goals and two assists. Spanish import Adriana has two goals and an assist to her credit.

Philadelphia will be looking to extend their WPS record six-game winning streak. This should be a very spirited battle between two teams that are separated by less than 100 miles and with playoff implications riding on this match.

magicJack at Atlanta (7 pm eastern, Saturday)
KSU Soccer Stadium, Kennesaw, Georgia.

Atlanta Beat (1-10-3)
Coach: James Galanis
Goalkeepers: A. Whitworth, A. Lipsher.
Defenders: C. Whitehill, K. Reynolds, H. Mitts, A. Marquez, L. Sesselmann, C. Flanagan.
Midfielders: L. Chalupny, C. Lloyd, K. Wright, K. White, M. Jesolva, I. Trotter, A. Salem, B. D'Agostino.
Forwards: M. Lenczyk, K. Parker.
Not active: K. Fraine, K. Dowling (injured), J. Sitch.

magicJack (5-5-1)
Coach: Abby Wambach
Goalkeepers: J. Loyden, B. Maron.
Defenders: T. Ellertson, C. Rampone, B. Sauerbrunn, M. Dalmy, L. Vandenbergh.
Midfielders: S. Huffman, N. Washington, S. Schmidt, O. Davis.
Forwards: A. Wambach, L. De Vanna, E. Masar, C. Press, J. Rasmussen.
Not active: H. Solo, A. Gunning, S. Boxx, M. Rapinoe, L. Tarpley (injured).

With several of their national team players nursing injuries or fatigued, magicJack faces the prospect of playing seven matches in the next 22 days to finish the regular season. Atlanta needs to win this match if they are to have even a remote chance at the playoffs.

Supposedly, USWNT star Abby Wambach will coach the team this week and for the foreseeable future. But having her back on the field is probably the most important thing. She is still hobbled by the Achilles injury and obviously had to be worn out by 600 minutes of soccer at the World Cup. Just her presence could be the shot in the arm that magicJack needs to make a final run at a playoff berth.

MagicJack does have a lot of good options at forward. In addition to Wambach, there is Australian speedster Lisa De Vanna, rookie of the year candidate Christen Press, WPS veteran Ella Masar, and Danish international Johanna Rasmussen. Press leads the team in scoring with five goals, good for third best in the league. Wambach and Masar are right behind with four goals apiece.

One problem for magicJack is that they are very thin in the midfield. With Lindsay Tarpley out for the season and Shannon Boxx and Megan Rapinoe sidelined after a tough World Cup schedule, magicJack basically has four true midfielders active for this match. Sarah Huffman, Sophie Schmidt, and Nikki Washington give them good quality in the midfield, with Marian Dalmy moving up from defense to help out at times.

Defensively, magicJack's three back defense has not proven to be the answer, at least not on the wider fields that they face on the road. MagicJack does have excellent defenders on the back line with Tina Ellertson, Becky Sauerbrunn, and Christie Rampone, but they are often overmatched by superiors numbers from the opposing team.

MagicJack will definitely miss Hope Solo and her status for the rest of this season is unknown. She revealed last night on "Lopez Tonight" that her wrist may be severely injured which would be a huge blow to magicJack. USWNT keeper Jill Loyden will step in for Solo.

Atlanta has been a better home team and far more competitive at FSU Stadium than on the road. The return of one of their most dangerous offensive weapons in Carli Lloyd should boost a Beat team that has scored just seven goals this season. The only other players with two goals are midfielder Lori Chalupny and forward Meghan Lenczyk. The Beat have gone 397 minutes without a goal and could break the record of 451 minutes set by the 2009 Chicago Red Stars.

The Beat will need contributions from their recent acquisitions, Kelly Parker and Kacey White, if they are to improve their offensive punch. Megan Jesolva is having a fine rookie season, but has been nursing an injury the past couple of weeks. Defensively, the return of Heather Mitts could help a team that has given up nearly two goals per game. Allison Whitworth has been the Beat's keeper as of late.

With only four games remaining, Atlanta must almost win out to have a decent chance at the playoffs. Even then, it would be an uphill climb. But they would like to give a good performance for their home crowd. MagicJack has more matches left than any other team and they must take advantage of that by picking up as many points as possible, starting with this match on Saturday evening.

Western New York at Boston (6 pm eastern, Sunday)
Harvard Stadium, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Boston Breakers (4-5-3)
Coach: Tony DiCicco
Goalkeepers: A. Naeher, A. Phillips.
Defenders: A. Scott, S. Cox, I. Dieke, K. Moore (probable), E. Reed, N. Marshall.
Midfielders: L. Osborne, M. Klingenberg, K. Winters, K. Schoepfer, L. Blayney, N. Cross, L. Bogus.
Forwards: K. O'Hara, T. Hemmings, C. Zimmeck.
Not active: K. Davis (injured), K. J. Spisak, R. Buehler, A. LePeilbet, A. Sameshima, J. Angeli (injured), L. Cheney (injured), K. Smith (injured).

Western New York Flash (8-2-2)
Coach: Aaran Lines
Goalkeepers: A. Harris, B. Cameron.
Defenders: C. Chapman, W. Engen, A. Riley, R. Moros, K. Wilson, G. Lewandowski.
Midfielders: Y. Averbuch, B. Edwards, B. Bock, M. Zerboni, B. Goebel.
Forwards: C. Sinclair, Marta, A. Morgan.
Not active: A. Bowers, K. Brandao, A. Sahlen, C. Seger (injured), Maurine, G. Davison, K. Fountain.

The Flash have now moved back into position where they can challenge Philadelphia for first place. With the exception of midfielder Caroline Seger, they are reasonably healthy heading into their final six matches.

Boston has been beset by injuries throughout the season. Add to the list Lauren Cheney, who suffered a sprained ankle in the World Cup final against Japan and English striker Kelly Smith. In addition, several of their national team players will be sitting out this match after a grueling World Cup schedule, including Aya Sameshima, a member of the champion Japanese team.

The goalkeeper matchup in this one should be good. Boston's Alyssa Naeher and WNY's Ashlyn Harris are currently in a battle for the lowest WPS goals against average (among those players that qualify). In addition, Naeher is tied for the league lead in shutouts with four.

Defensively, Boston will still be missing Rachel Buehler, Amy LePeilbet, and Aya Sameshima according to the roster report. While defense is one of the deepest areas for the Breakers, that is still a lot of talent out of the lineup. It will be interesting to see if coach Tony DiCicco uses newly acquired Nikki Marshall on defense or as a striker.

In the Breaker midfield, Leslie Osborne has been steady, as has rookie Keelin Winters. The acquisition of Meghan Klingenberg gives Boston a strong threat from the wing. With Smith and Cheney out, Boston's scoring punch has been severely reduced. USWNT reserve Kelley O'Hara is probably their biggest threat.

With their high-powered scoring triumvirate of Christine Sinclair, Marta, and Alex Morgan, the Flash look to be a very tough team to defend against as the season approaches the home stretch. Sinclair scored twice on Wednesday to bring her total to eight goals and she added an assist as well. Marta and Alex Morgan bring lightning speed to the front line. Marta has scored only four goals to this point, but look for her to close the season strong.

The Flash midfield will miss Seger, who was injured at the World Cup. McCall Zerboni is having a very good season, as is Becky Edwards. Yael Averbuch has added a strong dimension to the central midfield after missing much of the early season while trying to make the USWNT.

Defensively, the Flash are very good as well. Candace Chapman and Whitney Engen give WNY a strong central defense. Ali Riley is one of the best attackers at left back. Rebecca Moros has played outside back since being picked up in midseason.

In spite of being a point down, the Flash have a game in hand on Philadelphia and look to be the team to beat. Boston is locked in a threeway battle for the two remaining playoff spots. Look for a good game on Sunday.