Gold Pride's Marta looks like MVP lock in WPS' season-ending awards

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It is not often that a league's most valuable player carries a team to a championship.

Not once did the league MVP also win a championship in three years of the Women's United Soccer Assocation. Even on the men's side, just three MLS MVPs have won a championship in the same season.

However, FC Gold Pride forward Marta could break that trend this season, as the WPS leader in goals (17 in 21 games) is part of the league's top team. FC Gold Pride will play host to the WPS championship on Sept. 26 after winning the regular-season title. And with its 6-1 rout of the Atlanta Beat on Saturday, Marta's team continues to prove that it is the favorite in the title game.

Marta is on the short list of Michelle Akers Player of the Year candidates, along with Philadelphia Independence forward Amy Rodriguez, Boston Breakers midfielder Kelly Smith and Washington Freedom forward Abby Wambach.

If there were a comeback player of the year award, it would surely go to Rodriguez, who is tied for second with Wambach with 12 goals. Smith has been world class as a playmaker. But none of those three players can legitimately challenge Marta's claim to a second straight MVP award. The Brazilian has been on a season-long tear and was also named MVP of the 2010 WPS All-Star Game while playing for a team named after her (the Marta XI). The choice is obvious.

Where the WPS postseason awards get interesting is beyond the seemingly clear-cut MVP choice.

CANDIDATES: Albertin Montoya (FC Gold Pride), Paul Riley (Philadelphia Independence), Tony DiCicco (Boston Breakers), Jim Gabarra (Washington Freedom).

While Montoya has transformed his squad from worst to first in just one year, all three other contenders are impressive, too. DiCicco has also turned Boston from a team that missed the playoffs last season into one that should be hosting a playoff game in 2010. The Breakers have been on fire since the All-Star Game, with DiCicco's formation changes being key.

Gabarra is also a viable candidate after turning around a sinking boat with the Freedom. Despite losing five straight and going winless in 10 games during one stretch, Washington is in position to make the playoffs thanks to a five-game unbeaten streak.

Riley has built an expansion Philadelphia side from scratch into a team that will most likely host a playoff game and can still finish second in the regular season. Most impressive about Philadelphia is that it is a gritty team that has less talent than FC Gold Pride or Boston. Instilling a blue-collar approach into a team takes hard work, and that is why I give Riley the nod for this award.

CANDIDATES: Rachel Buehler (FC Gold Pride), Tina Ellertson (Atlanta Beat), Allison Falk (Philadelphia), Amy LePeilbet (Boston).

Defenders go underappreciated in WPS, having yet to win a Player of the Week award this season.

Buehler is a key part of the league's top defense. LePeilbet received the top number of player votes for both the 2009 and 2010 All-Star Games and that alone shows the respect her peers have for her. LePeilbet gets my vote for always being in the right place at the right time.

CANDIDATES: Karen Bardsley (Sky Blue FC), Nicole Barnhart (FC Gold Pride), Jillian Loyden (Chicago Red Stars), Hope Solo (Atlanta Beat).

This category could produce one of the more interesting votes. Sky Blue FC's Bardsley played only 10 games after breaking her collarbone during All-Star Game training June 29, but gave up just nine goals and kept five clean sheets. Barnhart, Loyden and Solo are all having great seasons, but Bardsley's impact is hard to ignore. Defending champion Sky Blue FC is 5-3-2 with Bardsley and 2-7-2 without her. It is that kind of a value that defines the importance of one player to her team, giving Bardsley the edge.

CANDIDATES: Jordan Angeli (Boston Breakers), Lauren Cheney (Boston Breakers), Ali Riley (FC Gold Pride), Brittany Taylor (Sky Blue FC).

Despite tallying four goals and two assists in 15 matches and having an unmatched work rate among rookies, FC Gold Pride forward and rookie All-Star Kelley O'Hara was left off the list of finalists. However, her teammate, defender Riley, is in contention after instantly becoming a regular starter at left back. Cheney is also on the list with five goals and two assists. The versatile Taylor is the only player on Sky Blue FC to play every minute this year.

But the favorite appears to be Angeli, who has six goals and three assists and has been influential in Boston's second-half surge. As the No. 16 pick in the 2010 draft, Angeli has been the surprise of the year and deserves the honor of being called the league's top rookie.

1. Washington holds edge for final playoff spot. The Freedom hold sole possession of the fourth and final playoff spot after a 2-1 win Saturday over Sky Blue FC. Wambach scored twice to send the Freedom three points clear of Sky Blue FC, which has a game in hand but has lost the head-to-head tiebreaker. On deck for Sky Blue FC is league-leading FC Gold Pride at home Wednesday night.

2. Chicago eliminated. With Chicago having been eliminated from playoff contention Aug. 22, coach Omid Namazi and his staff will be using the Red Stars' final two games as a way to start building toward 2011. "Long-term changes don't happen overnight," Namazi said. "It's a process and we're looking to build our team for next year. This will give us a better look at our players on the bubble and those we are undecided about."

3. Boston and Philly close to clinching home field. A single point for Philadelphia in Wednesday's trip to Chicago will clinch a home playoff game. Boston can also lock up a home playoff game with a win Wednesday in Atlanta. Philadelphia has twice failed to wrap up a home playoff game, most recently in Sunday's 2-1 loss to Boston. The Boston victory puts the Breakers just two points behind Philadelphia, and the Breakers can take over second place Wednesday for the first time if results go their way.

4. Atlanta Beat-down. Marta had a brace while Tiffeny Milbrett, O'Hara, Christine Sinclair and Camille Abily also joined in the scoring frenzy of FC Gold Pride's 6-1 victory against the Beat. It marked the first time a WPS team scored more than four goals in a game. A loss or tie Wednesday against Boston would eliminate Atlanta from playoff contention.

5. NCAA College Cup calls. Part of Atlanta's vision for its world-class soccer-specific venue is to host soccer events beyond just WPS games. Atlanta management got its wish with the announcement Tuesday that KSU Soccer Stadium will host the 2011 NCAA Women's College Cup. That announcement followed the recent news that the U.S. women's national team will play a friendly against China on Oct. 2 at the stadium. "This is a world-class stadium built specifically to host these types of high-level, important events, which will help put soccer on the map in the Southeast," Beat general manager Shawn McGee said.