August 2, 2011

WPS Midweek Preview: August 3

We are down to the final two weeks of WPS regular season action and both of Wednesday's matches have huge playoff implications. One is a battle for third place between magicJack and Sky Blue FC. The other is a matchup between 2nd place Western New York and 5th place Boston, with the Breakers fighting to keep their playoff hopes alive.

Sky Blue FC at magicJack (7 pm eastern, Wednesday)
FAU Soccer Field, Boca Raton, Florida.

magicJack (6-6-2, 19 pts)
Coach: Abby Wambach
Goalkeepers: J. Loyden, K. LeBlanc.
Defenders: T. Ellertson, C. Rampone, B. Sauerbrunn, M. Dalmy, L. Vandenbergh.
Midfielders: S. Boxx, S. Huffman, N. Washington, M. Rapinoe, S. Schmidt, O. Davis.
Forwards: A. Wambach, C. Press, E. Masar, L. De Vanna.
Not active: H. Solo (injured), L. Tarpley (injured).

Sky Blue FC (5-6-4, 19 pts)
Coach: Jim Gabarra
Goalkeepers: J. Branam, K. Bardsley.
Defenders: B. Taylor, K. Fletcher, A. Asante (questionable), C. Dew.
Midfielders: C. Blank, H. O'Reilly, A. Long, T. Sjogran, T. Heath, A. Kerr.
Forwards: Adriana, E. Aluko, C. Nogueira, L. Kalmari.
Not active: K. Arnold, J. Clark, S. Gray (injured), E. Guthrie, P. Hogewoning, D. Johnson, L. Johnson (injured), A. Mautz, M. Wenino.

Prior Meetings in 2011:
7/9 at SB - Sky Blue 2, magicJack 2
7/27 at mJ - Sky Blue 2, magicJack 0

Both teams enter the match with 19 points. Sky Blue has only three matches left, while magicJack has four. Sky Blue has the edge in the season series with a win and a tie. The winner of this match will be in the driver's seat for third place. The loser will try to fend off Boston for fourth place. This should have the feel and intensity of a playoff match.

MagicJack's victory over Boston on Saturday was their first win in nearly two months and it came just in time as it looked like they could miss the playoffs. Now they are in control of their own destiny and look to move into sole possession of third place.

MagicJack added veteran Canadian keeper Karina LeBlanc to their roster to help make up for the loss of Hope Solo. It will be interesting to see whether they stay with Jill Loyden in goal or turn to LeBlanc.

MagicJack exploded for four goals in their last match, three of them by rookie of the year candidate Christen Press. Abby Wambach scored the other, her first since returning from Germany. Ella Masar and Lisa De Vanna give magicJack a wealth of options up front.

Two of the most recent additions, Nikki Washington and Megan Rapinoe, give magicJack a couple of dangerous attacking weapons out of the midfield to go with veterans Shannon Boxx and Sarah Huffman.

Defensively, magicjack has one of the most veteran back lines in WPS, no matter if they play three or four in back. Christie Rampone, Tina Ellertson, and Becky Sauerbrunn all have USWNT experience. Marian Dalmy, who has played a lot of midfield for magicJack, returns to her more natural position on the back line in the four back set.

Sky Blue has veteran Jen Branam in goal. She has five shutouts on the season, leading WPS in that category. English National Team starter Karen Bardsley backs up Branam.

Defensively, Sky Blue has been vulnerable at times this season. Several of their defenders have had injury problems and Anita Asante is listed as questionable for this match. Brittany Taylor could be the key to the Sky Blue defense.

Sky Blue must get some offense out of their midfield, especially the trio of Heather O'Reilly, Therese Sjogran, and Allie Long. Coach Jim Gabarra has tried many different combinations up front, using Eniola Aluko, Adriana, Laura Kalmari, and Casey Nogueira with varying degrees of success. Gabarra prefers to bring Nogueira and midfielder Tobin Heath off the bench.

These teams are fighting for third place and the possibility of a home playoff match. With one less game remaining, Sky Blue is a little more under the gun at this point. They have played reasonably well against magicJack this season. Abby Wambach would just as soon forget that she put one in her own goal the last time these two teams met, just a week ago.

Boston at Western New York (7:30 pm eastern, Wednesday)
Sahlen Stadium, Rochester, New York.

Western New York Flash (9-2-3, 30 pts)
Coach: Aaran Lines
Goalkeepers: A. Harris, B. Cameron.
Defenders: C. Chapman, W. Engen, A. Riley, R. Moros, G. Lewandowski, K. Wilson.
Midfielders: Y. Averbuch, B. Edwards, C. Seger, M. Zerboni, B. Bock, B. Goebel.
Forwards: Marta, C. Sinclair, A. Morgan, G. Davison.
Not active: A. Bowers, K. Brandao, K. Fountain, Maurine, A. Sahlen.

Boston Breakers (4-7-4, 16 pts)
Coach: Tony DiCicco
Goalkeepers: A. Naeher, K. J. Spisak.
Defenders: R. Buehler, A. LePeilbet, S. Cox, A. Scott, I. Dieke.
Midfielders: L. Osborne, K. Winters, M. Klingenberg, A. Sameshima, K. Schoepfer, L. Blayney.
Forwards: K. O'Hara (probable), T. Hemmings, N. Marshall, L. Cheney (questionable), K. Smith (questionable).
Not active: J. Angeli (injured), L. Bogus, N. Cross, K. Davis (injured), K. Moore (injured), A. Phillips, E. Reed, C. Zimmeck.

Prior Meetings in 2011:
4/17 at Bos - Western New York 2, Boston 1
5/13 at WNY - Western New York 3, Boston 2
7/24 at Bos - Boston 2, Western New York 2

The 4-0 loss to magicJack put Boston in a situation where there is now no margin for error. Western New York is now in good position to win the WPS regular season title, in spite of being three points down to Philadelphia. They have two more games remaining than Philly and have two matches left with last place Atlanta.

One thing that must be said is that Boston has given the Flash a lot of problems this season in spite of having only one tie to show for their efforts. The Breakers have scored five times against Western New York, with Kelley O'Hara getting two in their last match against the Flash.

Lauren Cheney and Kelly Smith are both listed as questionable for the match and without them, Boston is severely limited in scoring options. In fact, if Cheney and Smith are not able to play, the Breakers are missing their top five scorers from the 2010 season. Jordan Angeli was injured in the first game of the season, while Kristine Lilly retired and Lindsay Tarpley signed with magicJack.

So where then does the scoring come from for Boston? O'Hara is obviously the first option. She leads the Breakers with four goals. Katie Schoepfer is having a very good season with the Breakers and has two goals to her credit. Keelin Winters also has two goals for Boston, as does Kasey Moore, but she is out with an injury as well. Boston does have a couple of offensive weapons in former magicJack players Meghan Klingenberg and Nikki Marshall.

Defensively, the Breakers must improve against Western New York, which is no easy task. They have given up seven goals in just three games, which is about the league average against the Flash. Boston boasts a strong, veteran back line, but they need to be especially sturdy in this match. Alex Scott is the best offensive threat out of the back. Alyssa Naeher is second in WPS in both goals against average and shutouts.

Christine Sinclair leads the league in both goals and assists heading into the final two weeks of the season and must be considered one of the frontrunners for league MVP. Marta is having a "quiet season", but by her standards only. She has five goals and four assists. Alex Morgan has four goals and two assists for WNY in very limited action.

With Caroline Seger back in the midfield, the Flash machine has returned to full strength. They easily defeated a strong Sky Blue team 4-1 over the weekend and are starting to once again look like the second coming of FC Gold Pride. McCall Zerboni has scored twice against the Breakers this season.

The Flash rank second in the league in defense, with Ashlyn Harris playing every minute of the season in goal. She has a great center back tandem of Whitney Engen and Candace Chapman in front of her. Ali Riley, like Scott for Boston, is one of the best outside backs in the world and always a threat on the offensive end as well.

While a loss would not eliminate the Breakers from playoff contention, it would certainly make things very, very hard for them. Luckily, their two remaining games after this one are against the two teams they are chasing in the standings, magicJack and Sky Blue.

A victory for Western New York would pull them even with Philadelphia with a game in hand, putting them in the driver's seat for the WPS regular season championship.