WPS battle for playoff spots takes shape as postseason approaches
The end of the WPS regular season has crept up on the league following the Women's World Cup. Just two weeks remain to sort out a very crowded league table that features a two-horse race for first place between Western New York and Philadelphia and three teams battling for the final two playoff spots in Sky Blue FC, Boston and magicJack. As teams attempt to distance themselves from the pack, they rely on top players. Week 16 in WPS featured great individual performances, noted in five things learned from this week's action ...
Press left Stanford University as the career leader in goals (71), assists (41) and points (183). That lethal finishing has carried over into WPS, where Press has gotten little attention up until this weekend. She has quickly climbed toward the top of the scoring charts, and her daring and sometimes flashy play is worthy of a call-up from U.S. coach Pia Sundhage.
Also notable from magicJack is the signing of Canadian goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc. She has not played in WPS since last season when she split time with Val Henderson in Philadelphia. LeBlanc carries a high pedigree around the league, and her addition to magicJack further suggests that U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo, who is battling a wrist and shoulder injury, will not return this season.
Unmistakably, Boquete has been the driving force that has kept Philadelphia atop the table with two weeks to play. Western New York is hot on the heels of the Independence, and the Flash will still claim first place by winning out, but Paul Riley's Independence squad has been resilient throughout the season by taking an approach to keep the core of the team together. Riley never relied on players he would be losing to the Women's World Cup (Lori Lindsey and Amy Rodriguez) and has built a solid foundation to a team contending for a championship.
Philadelphia announced it will play a playoff game at PPL Park (either the Super Semifinal or the Championship match), the home of MLS' Philadelphia Union. It is a move that rewards the team, its fans and the league with a proper venue for a match of such magnitude.
All season, Chalupny has been the veteran presence that Atlanta needs with such an inexperienced team. She's played all over the field for the Beat this season and never given up despite the team's discouraging 1-11-4 (seven points) record. Her two goals do little justice to the effort she has put in, and, if surrounded by a better supporting cast, she could flourish as she has in the past with Saint Louis Athletica and the U.S. women's national team.
However, the veteran help that Chalupny could use to has been in and out of Atlanta's lineup all year. Defender Cat Whitehill has played in all but one game, but Carli Lloyd and Heather Mitts missed half the season with the U.S. as the team prepared for the Women's World Cup, with Kelly Parker and Kacey White only added via midseason trades. With a little bit more veteran leadership, Atlanta could really contend in 2012.
Sky Blue still controls its destiny, but it will need to find consistency. The New Jersey-based side ends the season with three road games starting with Wednesday's return to Florida against magicJack. A trip to Philadelphia follows on Sunday, and Sky Blue's season could be decided on Aug. 14 with a trip to Boston.
If Sky Blue fails to make the playoffs, that could be goalkeeper Jenni Branam's last professional game. The club announced on Saturday that the 30-year-old would have her No. 23 retired at the end of the season. Branam played all three WPS seasons with Sky Blue, starting 35 matches to date, and always provides excitement as an adventurous sweeper-keeper who has been known to come as far as 30 yards off her line to stop counter attacks. Those wild plays will be missed dearly by the Yurcak Field faithful.
Boston is three points out of a playoff spot with three games to play, but magicJack also has a game in hand. The returns of English midfielder Kelly Smith and U.S. forward Lauren Cheney from injury cannot come soon enough for Boston. Both are game-changers that can finish and play in deeper supporting roles.