August 19, 2011

Super Semifinal Preview - magicJack at Philadelphia

WPS Super Semifinal
magicJack at Philadelphia Independence (4 pm eastern, Saturday)
PPL Park, Chester, Pennsylvania

Philadelphia Independence (11-4-3)
Coach: Paul Riley
Nicole Barnhart (1.11 ga, 3 shutouts), Val Henderson (0.89 g, 4 shutouts).
Defenders: Nikki Krzysik, Kia McNeill (1 goal), Leigh Ann Robinson (2 ast), Estelle Johnson (1 goal, 1 ast).
Midfielders: Jen Buczkowski, Tina DiMartino (2 goals, 1 ast), Danesha Adams (3 goals, 1 ast), Lori Lindsey, Sinead Farrelly (1 goal, 2 ast), Joanna Lohman (2 ast).
Forwards: Tasha Kai (9 goals, 1 ast), Veronica Boquete (5 goals, 4 ast), Amy Rodriguez (2 goals), Laura del Rio (2 goals, 3 ast), Lianne Sanderson (3 goals, 3 ast), Gina DiMartino.
Not active: Lauren Barnes, Allison Falk, Lauren Fowlkes, Robyn Jones.

magicJack (10-7-2)
Coach: Abby Wambach
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 Vandenberg.
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).
Playoff stats: Wambach (2 goals), Rapinoe (1 goal), Huffman (1 ast), Press (1 ast), Loyden (1.00 ga).

Previous Meetings in 2011:
5/1 at mJ – magicJack 2, Philadelphia 1
6/18 at Phi – Philadelphia 6, magicJack 0
6/25 at Phi – Philadelphia 3, magicJack 1
8/14 at mJ – magicJack 2, Philadelphia 1

Just one step away from the WPS Championship match, magicJack and Philadelphia meet in the Super Semifinal in Chester, Pennsylvania on Saturday. The match will be played at PPL Park, home of the Philadelphia Union. This will be a rematch of a game played less than a week ago, when magicJack defeated Philadelphia 2-1 in Boca Raton.

The two teams split their regular season matchup, with the home team winning all four matches. However, it must be noted that Philly’s wins, while lopsided, came with the national team players away. magicJack suffered two blowouts in late June while missing a good portion of their roster.

magicJack had very little problem with their semifinal match, defeating Boston 3-1 on Wednesday. The question is whether or not fatigue could creep into the magicJack camp with just two days between matches and travel to boot. They have won five of their last six matches and have played consistently well over the past three weeks.

Philadelphia probably heads into this match as the slight favorite. They will be at home and they finished in second place, pretty well ahead of magicJack in the standings. The Independence has won 9 of their last 11 contests and held first place for a time in the second half of the season.

Most point to Philly’s explosive offense as the key to this team’s success. However, a closer look reveals otherwise. Fifteen of Philadelphia’s 31 goals for the season came in just four games in the middle of the season while most of the league’s top players were away. The Indepedence scored just 16 goals in their other 14 matches, a shade over a goal per match. True, they were shut out just twice this season, but many of their victories came via 1-0 and 2-1 scores, not by wild scoring blowouts. In fact, Philadelphia has averaged just a goal a game over their last six matches, with three wins coming by a 1-0 margin.

Philadelphia has been a very strong home team this season, going 7-1-1 on their home turf. This will be the first time that their home field will be the larger PPL Park instead of Leslie Quick Stadium. magicJack has not fared well on the road, with a 2-5-2 record away from home. In their first seven road matches, they gave up 21 goals, but they did post shutouts in their last two.


The goalkeeper matchup will pit the second and third goalkeepers on the USWNT against one another. Nicole Barnhart has been Hope Solo’s backup for some time on the national team. She has had a pretty good season, posting three shutouts for the season. But Barnhart was in goal for three of Philadelphia’s four losses, including a pair of 2-1 losses to magicJack.

Barnhart has good agility and the experience she received playing in high pressure USWNT matches while Solo was out has been invaluable. She appears calmer in big game situations than she used to be. She also has a WPS championship match under her belt.

Loyden now has a playoff win on her resume’. She played reasonably well against Boston on Wednesday, but was not tested all that often. Saturday should be different. She has not faced Philadelphia all season. She did post four shutouts for the season and her season’s performance was superior to her 2010 play. This match might be the biggest of her career.

Both teams have excellent backup keepers and strangely enough, both were starters at Philadephia last year. Val Henderson actually has a better goals against average than Barnhart. She earned four shutouts, including a stretch where she posted three in a row. Veteran Canadian keeper Karina LeBlanc is magicJack’s backup keeper. In 2009, she led the league in shutouts and goals against average.

Barnhart has an edge in experience and probably has the better skills than Loyden. But Loyden has shown the ability to rise to the occasion in some instances.

Advantage: Slightly Philadelphia.


When talking about Philadelphia’s defense, sturdy and physical are two words that come to mind. One other major factor is that the Independence have had the best continuity of any defense in the league this season.

Nikki Krzysik has played every minute of the season. Leigh Ann Robinson missed just one match. The only time when Kia McNeill wasn’t on the field was because of a red card and the subsequent suspension. And Estelle Johnson has been a starter for the last two-thirds of the season. This continuity even extends to Philly’s best defensive midfielder, Jen Buczkowski, who has also played every minute. This is one of the key reasons why the Independence are where they are.

There isn’t a national team player among them and most came from other teams. Krzysik and McNeill are hard-nosed defenders who just get the job done. Krzysik was named Citi Sportswoman of the Year. Robinson is an outside back, who loves to make overlapping runs. Estelle Johnson has shown great improvement in her second season in WPS. There is nothing flashy about this group. They’re blue collar, hard-working defenders. They helped lead Philadelphia with seven shutouts and a 1.00 goals against average.

Unlike Philadelphia, magicJack has a world of USWNT experience on their back line. Christie Rampone and Becky Sauerbrunn are current members of the national team and Tina Ellertson played on the 2007 World Cup team. Marian Dalmy also has experience with the national team. Ellertson and Rampone have very good speed and three of the four starters are excellent in the air.

magicJack got a bit of a scare on Wednesday as Tina Ellertson went down with a hamstring that has given her problems for the past few seasons. She was not listed in the injury report, so I assume she will be starting on Saturday.

magicJack has given up quite a few goals this season, but eight were in three contests against Western New York and another nine came against Philadelphia when they were without Rampone and Sauerbrunn. magicJack is now 9-2-1 with Rampone in the starting lineup and their goals against average in those games is a miniscule 0.75.

I think that Philly’s forwards against magicJack’s back line will be the most interesting matchup of the game. My question about Philadelphia’s back line concerns speed. They appear to have the size to perhaps deal with Wambach, but do they have the speed to deal with De Vanna and Press.

Advantage: Slightly to magicJack.


Jen Buczkowski could almost be called Philadelphia’s fifth defender. Paul Riley has given her a great deal of credit for her part in the great season that the Independence has had and rightfully so. She has been on the pitch for every single minute of the 2011 season. She is very defense-minded, but has gotten better with distribution and ball control. What Buczkowski brings to the Independence doesn’t show up in box scores. She has played in the WPS final the last two years and will be looking to make this three straight.

Tina DiMartino is one of the most skilled midfielders in the United States. She is very good in tight space and has gotten better at pinpointing her passes. She will occasionally have an off game, but those occasions are becoming fewer and fewer. Her job is to link up with the talented front line of the Independence.

Then it basically depends on what formation that Coach Paul Riley elects to use. If he decides to go more defensive with five midfielders, we might see Joanna Lohman joining Buczkowski as a holding mid. Danesha Adams has seen more and more playing time at a variety of positions, with attacking mid being the most likely. She scored three goals this year, two of them against magicJack. Sinead Farrelly, who had a very good rookie season, started for most of the year, but now is slotted in as a sub. USWNT midfielder Lori Lindsey has also been used primarily as a substitute this season.

For magicJack, Sarah Huffman played a very large role in Wednesday’s victory. Her cross set up Abby Wambach’s first goal and she was tripped up in the penalty area, which gave Wambach her second goal. She was a constant threat on the right side of the magicJack attack.

Shannon Boxx gives magicJack a physical presence and experience in the midfield. She has played for the championship the last two years. Canadian Sophie Schmidt has played very well the past few weeks, now that she has acclimated to her team after missing the first half of the season.

Megan Rapinoe has been the biggest addition to this team. She has been a major part of the success they have had lately and her goal put the match away on Wednesday. In spite of having missed a good part of it, she is having her best professional season. Nikki Washington was another acquisition that has made her mark with magicJack and she will likely be one of the first players off the bench on Saturday. Omolyn Davis has scored one goal for magicJack in limited playing time.

With Rapinoe and Huffman on the wings, magicJack’s midfield is at the top of their game right now. Philadelphia’s midfield is having a fine season as well. While Riley might start Vero Boquete in the midfield, she is, for all intents and purposes, a striker as far as I’m concerned. I think at this point that Philadelphia is better defensively in the midfield, while magicJack’s midfield is better on the offensive end.

Advantage: Even.


Start with Tasha Kai, who scored nine goals this season. Then you have Veronica Boquete, the league’s Player of the Year with five goals and four assists. Then add last year’s leading scorer for Philly, Amy Rodriguez of the USWNT. Then there are Laura del Rio and Lianne Sanderson, both of whom are a threat to score or set up their teammates. You have a pretty potent offense there.

But the offense hasn’t been as overpowering lately, averaging just a goal a game over their last six. It may well take more than one goal to win Saturday’s match. Kai has scored just once in her last six matches after scoring six goals in four games in the middle of the season.

Boquete has been the sensation of the WPS season. She is very fast and very determined. Philadelphia has only lost once with her in the starting lineup. She has very good vision and works especially well with her Spanish teammate, del Rio. del Rio has done some scoring of her own with two goals and three assists in just 471 minutes played.

Riley is hoping that Rodriguez will find her form from a year ago, when she scored 12 goals for the Independence. Her goal in the season finale against magicJack should give her a boost in confidence. With the arrival of Boquete, the return of Rodriguez, and with Adams getting more playing time, Lianne Sanderson’s minutes have suffered the most. Lost in all the hoopla around Kai and Boquete is the contribution she has made with three goals and three assists, plus getting the game winner against Sky Blue just two weeks ago.

Most of magicJack’s scoring comes from the fearsome foursome of Abby Wambach, Christen Press, Lisa De Vanna, and Ella Masar. Wambach has been on a scoring binge lately. She has scored seven goals in the last five matches in which she has appeared. The strongest player in the league with her head, she scored two goals with her feet on Wednesday, with one being a penalty kick.

Rookie of the Year Christen Press has been one of the most exciting new additions to this league. She scored eight goals and showed on Wednesday night that she can also set up teammates, cutting back against the defender to assist on Rapinoe’s goal. Her speed will give Philly’s back line problems.

And speaking of speed, there is Lisa De Vanna, one of the fastest players in the world. She has just three goals this season, but all three came against Philadelphia. Ella Masar has been a consistent performer who has scored four goals for magicJack this year.

Advantage: Even.


Paul Riley was named Coach of the Year for the second consecutive season in WPS. He knows his stuff and generally gets the most out of his players. He has an all-time regular season record of 21-13-8 and a playoff record of 2-1. He is a great tactician and very good at making subtle changes during the match.

Abby Wambach now has a playoff victory to add to her coaching resume'. She has done a very good job since taking over as player/coach for magicJack. But it has to be hard coaching and playing at the same time. Her teammate, Christie Rampone did it in 2009 for Sky Blue, but it isn’t easy.

Advantage: Philadelphia.


Philadelphia is playing at home, where they have a 7-1-1 record. But this is a different field for them and sometimes playing in a larger stadium can take away some of the home field advantage. magicJack has struggled on the road at 2-5-2, but they did post shutouts in their last two road matches.

magicJack will have less than 72 hours to recuperate from Wednesday’s match. They are the hot team right now with five wins in their last six matches, but Philadelphia has won nine of their last eleven. With national teamers on the field, magicJack has won both matches against Philly.

Edge: Philadelphia

Things to Look for

1) Fatigue – Wednesday’s match had to take something out of magicJack. They have less than 72 hours between matches and they have had to travel. It may not be apparent until late in the match, but watch to see if magicJack doesn’t appear to be a bit worn out as the 2nd half wears on.

2) A Tale of Two Halves – magicJack has scored in the first half of all ten of their victories this season, including the playoffs. Once again, they scored in the early stages of Wednesday’s match against Boston. Philadelphia is the opposite. They have outscored their opponents by only 13-11 in the first half, but by an astounding 18-7 margin in the second half. They have scored 11 goals after the 70th minute, with four of those coming in the 90th minute or stoppage.

3) Possession - Especially considering the fatigue factor, possession becomes even more important in this match. If Philadelphia can make magicJack chase, they could wear them down.

4) Physicality – Both teams can be very physical, so expect there to be a lot of pushing and shoving at both ends, as well as hard fought battles for the ball. Also note that two players we are likely to see hit the turf a lot are Tasha Kai for Philadelphia and Abby Wambach for magicJack. If either one is able to draw a call at a key juncture in the match, it could be a deciding factor.

5) Speed – Both teams have a lot of speed on the offensive end of the field, especially Boquete for Philadelphia and Press and De Vanna for magicJack. magicJack has more speed and experience on their back line and are probably more apt to handle opposing speed better. Watch to see, however, if Press and/or De Vanna is able to get behind Krzysik and McNeill in the Independence central defense.

My Prediction

This may be as tough a match to predict as there has been all season. Trying to compare two teams with many attacking options and how the opposing defenses will cope with them can be pretty complicated. Will a mistake decide the match or possibly a penalty kick? Could the game go to overtime, which should favor the more rested Independence? Who would have the advantage should the game go to penalty kicks?

In comparing the two teams records, considering only games before mid-June and after mid-July when rosters were at full strength, their records aren’t that different. Philly was 6-4-3 in those matches. magicJack was 9-5-1 over the same time frame.

This is more a hunch than anything else...

magicJack 2, Philadelphia 1