August 16, 2011

Playoff Preview - Boston Breakers at magicJack

WPS First Round Playoffs
Boston Breakers at magicJack (7:30 pm eastern, Wednesday)
FAU Soccer Field, Boca Raton, Florida.

magicJack (9-7-2)
Coach: Abby Wambach
Goalkeepers: Jill Loyden (1.13 ga, 4 shutouts); Karina LeBlanc (1.00 ga)
Defenders: Tina Ellertson, Christie Rampone (1 ast), Becky Sauerbrunn, Marian Dalmy (3 ast), Lydia Vandenbergh.
Midfielders: Shannon Boxx, Sophie Schmidt (1 goal, 1 ast), Sarah Huffman (1 goal, 2 ast), Megan Rapinoe (2 goals, 2 ast), Nikki Washington (7 ast), Omolyn Davis (1 goal).
Forwards: Abby Wambach (9 goals, 2 ast), Christen Press (8 goals), Lisa De Vanna (3 goals, 1 ast), Ella Masar (4 goals, 2 ast).
Not active: Hope Solo (injured), Lindsay Tarpley (injured).

Boston Breakers (5-9-4)
Coach: Tony DiCicco
Goalkeepers: Alyssa Naeher (1.33 ga, 5 shutouts), Ashley Phillips.
Defenders: Alex Scott, Rachel Buehler (1 goal), Amy LePeilbet, Stephanie Cox, Taryn Hemmings, Elli Reed.
Midfielders: Leslie Osborne, Keelin Winters (3 goals, 2 ast), Meghan Klingenberg (1 goal, 2 ast), Aya Sameshima, Katie Schoepfer (2 goals, 2 ast).
Forwards: Lauren Cheney (3 goals), Kelley O'Hara (4 goals, 1 ast), Kelly Smith (1 goal, 4 ast), Nikki Marshall, C. Zimmeck (1 ast).
Not active: Jordan Angeli (injured), Leah Blayney, Liz Bogus, Niki Cross, Kelsey Davis (injured), Ifeoma Dieke, Kasey Moore (injured), Katie Jo Spisak.
Injury notes: Kelley O'Hara (probable), Kelly Smith (questionable).

Previous Meetings in 2011:
4/23 at mJ - magicJack 1, Boston 0
6/5 at Bos - Boston 2, magicJack 1
7/30 at mJ - magicJack 4, Boston 0
8/6 at Bos - magicJack 2, Boston 0

The first round of the WPS playoffs will be played on Wednesday evening, with the fourth place Boston Breakers traveling to Boca Raton to play third place magicJack. The two teams met four times during the regular season with magicJack winning three, all by shutout. Boston's lone victory in the series came on June 5 in a 2-1 victory.

The Breakers have a new-found life after getting into the playoffs on the last day of the season in what has otherwise been a pretty lackluster campaign. The Breakers suffered seven shutouts, most of those in the second half of the season. They did have a five game unbeaten streak in the middle of the year, when they earned nine of their 19 points for the season.

It was an injury plagued season for the Breakers, starting from the first game when Jordan Angeli suffered a season-ending injury just moments after scoring Boston's first goal of the season. The Breakers defeated Sky Blue in the final game of the regular season to edge into the playoffs, after getting a little help from Philadelphia the previous week.

magicJack started out of the gate very well, then floundered through the middle of their schedule, before finishing very strong by winning four of their last five matches. Abby Wambach has been the driving force down the stretch. The return of their national team players has helped and the key acquisitions of Megan Rapinoe and Nikki Washington have paid big dividends for magicJack.

magicJack have been very strong at home, going 7-2, while the Breakers are only 1-6-2 on the road, with the only road victory coming in the season opener against Atlanta. Boston has been shut out in five of their nine road games, while magicJack has posted shutouts in five of their nine home games. magicJack has averaged scoring over two goals per game at home.


Alyssa Naeher has played every minute of the season in goal for the Breakers. She was consistently among the league leaders in goals against average for most of the year, until suffering a three-game stretch when she gave up eight goals toward the end of the season. Her five shutouts is tied for the best in WPS. Naeher led WPS in saves in 2011. Note though that her five shutouts came against only two teams, Sky Blue and Atlanta.

Jill Loyden played in the season opener for magicJack, getting a shutout over Boston and then didn't play again until July 20. After she returned from the World Cup, she took over the starting job with Hope Solo being injured. She posted four shutouts in just eight matches, but she also gave up two or more goals in four matches. Three of Loyden's four shutouts came against Boston. Keep in mind that Karina LeBlanc is an outside possibility to play in this match.

Naeher is probably the more agile of the two, with Loyden having the advantage in size and experience. Naeher lost her only start in the playoffs in 2010. Loyden has never played in a playoff match, but she seems to have Boston's number this year. This matchup is very, very close.

Advantage: Even


Boston's back line are national teamers all, but at times, they haven't performed as such. The Breakers gave up 24 goals this season, quite a lot with the world's best guarding your goal. Part of that can be explained away by World Cup fatigue, but not all of it. In the 11 matches when Boston's starting defense was intact (or nearly so), the Breakers went 2-8-1, giving up 17 goals. The low point was a 4-0 drubbing at the hands of magicJack on July 30.

The Breakers do have a lot of talent defensively. Amy LePeilbet has been two-time Defender of the Year. Alex Scott is one of the best attacking outside backs in the world. Rachel Buehler is regarded as one of the toughest tackling defenders in soccer. Stephanie Cox is a very steady performer at outside back. Taryn Hemmings filled in nicely when several of the national teamers were away. Elli Reed got in some quality minutes in her rookie season.

After an adjustment in formation, magicJack seems to have steadied what was an early season roller coaster ride on defense. Like Boston, they have plenty of national team experience on their back line. But magicJack's defense has been the antithesis of the Breakers. For instance, in games in which Christie Rampone started, magicJack has a sparkling 8-2-1 record. All six shutouts posted by magicJack came with Rampone and Becky Sauerbrunn in the lineup.

Besides national teamers Rampone and Sauerbrunn, magicJack has two former USWNT players on their back line in Tina Ellertson and Marian Dalmy. Ellertson has consistently been ranked as one of the league's best defenders. Dalmy is very good at getting into the attack and assisted on three goals this season, although it should be mentioned she played a lot of midfield this year. Lydia Vandenbergh provides depth for magicJack.

Based on names, I would give Boston the edge, but based on performance, magicJack has an obvious advantage. The Breakers finally came through with a shutout in the last game of the season, with everything on the line. Again, it's almost too close to call.

Advantage: Slightly to magicJack


Outside of Naeher, the only two players that played in all eighteen matches for Boston were Leslie Osborne and Keelin Winters. Osborne is a very well respected player, a tough-tackling, strong-defending veteran who has played many WPS and USWNT matches. She was one of the keys to Boston's turnaround in 2010. Winters has had an exceptional season in her first season, good enough to be nominated for Rookie of the Year honors. She has contributed three goals and two assists to Boston this year.

The other two Boston midfielders weren't even with the team at the start of the season. Aya Sameshima was signed in June and only saw 45 minutes of action before leaving for the World Cup to play for the champion Japanese team. Coach Tony DiCicco has moved Sameshima from her outside defender role she plays for Japan to the midfield. So far, Sameshima seems to be adopting her new position rather well.

Meghan Klingenberg was obtained from playoff opponent magicJack in early June and scored a goal and two assists after her arrival. She has proven to be a very good player from the wing. Katie Schoepfer can fill in at either midfielder or striker. She had her best WPS season with two goals and two assists. One of her two goals came against magicJack, as did Klingenberg's goal. In fact, they are only two Boston players to score against magicJack this season.

Three of magicJack's four midfield starters are national teamers, led by veteran Shannon Boxx. Boxx played on regular season champion LA Sol in 2009 and the WPS champion FC Gold Pride side last season. She knows how to win and although she isn't as dominating as she once was, she is still a very strong player.

Midseason acquisition Megan Rapinoe has been key to magicJack's success down the stretch. In just four starts, she scored a goal and assisted on two others for magicJack. She helped add a new energy to this mostly veteran magicJack team. Another national team player, Sophie Schmidt, is having a fine rookie season after missing the first half of it with Canada. She had a goal and an assist in the last four matches.

Sarah Huffman is another veteran player. She has been with this franchise back before it's WPS inception with the W-League Freedom. She is a steady performer, who defends well and can provide offense if needed. Another midseason acquisition, Nikki Washington, has provided a lot of offense from her wing position. With the national teamers back, she may be used more in a substitute role, but expect to see her in the match at some point.

Once again, this is a pretty close call. magicJack's midfield is probably more offensively inclined, while Boston is more defensively inclined.

Advantage: magicJack


Kelley O'Hara has been Boston's leading scorer in 2011 with four goals. She really plays almost a hybrid attacking midfielder/forward position, but with Kelly Smith sidelined by injury, the inclination is to call her a forward. No doubt about O'Hara, she has speed to burn. Out of all of the USWNT players, she missed the fewest WPS matches and scored twice in her first game back against the Flash.

Injuries at the World Cup has hobbled two of Boston's star performers. Lauren Cheney hurt her ankle in the final against Japan and is just now getting back to full health. She scored only three goals this season, but two of those came in the season finale against Sky Blue. She is one of the best players in the league with her back to the goal, using her body to turn on a defender and get off a quick shot.

The other injured forward is Kelly Smith, who has played only 45 minutes since returning for Germany where she aggravated an injury in the quarterfinal match against France. Smith has a goal and four assists, but until this season, she was perennially among the leaders in scoring. She is listed as questionable for this match and one wonders if Boston can get at least some minutes out of this great veteran. Boston's depth at forward includes Nikki Marshall, also acquired from magicJack, and Claire Zimmeck.

If it is the end of the season, it must be Abby Wambach time. She scored five goals in three key victories down the stretch to lead magicJack into the playoffs. Three of those goals came against the Breakers. As has often been said, Wambach is simply the most dangerous weapon in the air in women's soccer. Not that she can't score with her feet, but she is absolutely deadly with headers.

If Wambach likes playing Boston, Christen Press absolutely loves it. She score four of her eight goals against the Breakers, including a hat trick in the 4-0 victory in late July. Press is the odds-on-favorite for Rookie of the Year and among the league leaders in goals. The rookie out of Stanford is very fast and is fast developing into one of the best forwards in the league.

magicJack certainly has quality depth at the forward position. Ella Masar and Lisa De Vanna have been starters before and both have shown the ability to score. Masar was Chicago's leading scorer a year ago and she put four in the net for magicJack this season, as well as assisting on two goals in the final match of the season. De Vanna is one of the fastest, most determined forwards in the world. She showed off her skills for the Australian national team, before returning to the states to score two goals in magicJack's season finale.

magicJack has gotten 24 goals out of their four forwards for the season, five more than Boston's entire team scored. If Smith were fully healthy, it might be a different story, but it would be hard to not give magicJack an edge here.

Advantage: magicJack


Tony DiCicco is a former national team coach and is the only person ever to coach the WPS Breakers. He has more experience than probably any other coach in this league. Abby Wambach, on the other hand, is a novice at coaching. A great player to be sure, but she'll need a bit more coaching experience before I can compare her to DiCicco.

Advantage: Boston


magicJack has the home field advantage and they are 7-2 at home. The Breakers have not been a good road team at all. They did not score a goal in their two matches at FAU. magicJack closed the season very strong, winning four of their last five, while Boston suffered a four game losing streak, before defeating Sky Blue to squeak into the playoffs.

Neither team has ever won a playoff match. The Washington Freedom (magicJack's previous incarnation) lost in the first round both in 2009 and 2010. The Breakers lost in the semifinals to Philadelphia last year in their only playoff action.

Advantage: magicJack

Things to Look for:

1) The First 25 Minutes - In three of their five victories, the Breakers scored a goal in the first seven minutes of the match. In a fourth, they scored in the 18th minute. The only exception to this was a 1-0 victory over Sky Blue where they scored the game's only goal in the 2nd half. Meanwhile, Boston was 0-8-1 when giving up the first goal of the match.

magicJack is 8-0-1 when scoring the first goal. They have outscored their opponents 15-12 in the opening stanza, while being outscored in the 2nd half overall. Of their nine wins, they scored a goal in the first 26 minutes of the match in eight of them. They scored a first half goal in every match they won or tied, except a scoreless draw against Atlanta. magicJack did come from behind to win one match against Philadelphia, back in April.

Obviously, coming out of the gate strong is very important to both teams.

2) Set Pieces - When the most dominant player in the air is on the field, set pieces become a big factor in the match. Abby Wambach is exceptional at putting her head on the ball and finding the back of the net. Boston must limit the number of set pieces they give up, plain and simple.

3) Speed - magicJack is loaded with speed up front with Christen Press and Lisa De Vanna. Boston's defense cannot afford to be caught flat-footed by these forwards. De Vanna can be especially dangerous, coming on late when defenders are tiring. Press already has had success against Boston and her confidence has to be brimming entering this match.

4) Goalkeeping - If the match is close, it could come down to a goalkeeping mistake to decide the match. Both goalkeepers, Alyssa Naeher and Jill Loyden, are fairly inexperienced in playoff action. Both have been prone, at times, to making the occasional mistake. Neither can afford to do so in this match.

5) The Midfield Battle - magicJack has the edge in my opinion, but if Boston can hold their own, it could turn the tide of the match. It will be interesting to see how the inexperienced Boston midfield with two rookies and young Aya Sameshima will hold up under playoff pressure. Leslie Osborne has to be the leader here.

Meanwhile, magicJack's midfield is very experienced. While Sophie Schmidt is a rookie in name, she is hardly that with a long list of caps for the Canadian National Team. Boxx has been in this position before, with the Sol in '09 and Gold Pride in '10.

6) Backs Getting Forward - It will also be interesting to see which team can get their outside backs involved in the offense. Alex Scott is one of the best for Boston. Coach DiCicco even tried her out up front this season. Marian Dalmy is also strong in this regard for magicJack. Whichever team can get the backs forward on overlapping runs might have the advantage.

My Prediction:
magicJack is the hot team and are playing at home. With Smith still iffy because of her injury, Boston's attack may be severely limited. The Breakers absolutely need to keep this game low-scoring and close. magicJack just has too much experience and too many weapons overall.

magicJack 2, Boston Breakers 0