Smiling and skipping, Amy Rodriguez ran toward her Philadelphia Independence teammates and jumped into their arms Sunday. The elated forward had just scored the game-winning goal in the 120th minute of the WPS first-round playoff match against the Washington Freedom.
With the dramatic goal, Rodriguez ended her scoring drought of more than 600 minutes and halted the team's four-game losing streak at a critical time.
But Rodriguez's goal came after two hours of frustrating soccer. Philadelphia topped the visiting Freedom 1-0 to advance to Thursday's WPS Super Semifinal against the Boston Breakers, but the win was classic ugly, gritty playoff soccer. It was a scrappy game that featured more than a half-dozen blown chances for the Independence and exposed weaknesses that a better opponent would have exploited.
As much as Philadelphia dominated statistically (24 shots to the Freedom's six), Washington owned the middle of the field throughout the first half. Washington's 4-5-1 formation gave the Freedom an extra player in the midfield, which shredded through the Independence in the middle of the park.
Philadelphia lacked any defensive cover from its wing midfielders and would have been exposed more out wide had the game not been played on the narrow turf field at West Chester University.
The biggest problem Philadelphia coach Paul Riley needs to address is the large gap between the defenders and the midfielders that allowed Washington to find forward Abby Wambach's feet with ease in the first half.
Wambach was allowed time and space to receive the ball to combine with the midfielders, although a lack of finishing saw Washington fail to put a single shot on goal over 120 minutes.
After holding Wambach scoreless, Philadelphia now must try to contain Boston's Kelly Smith, arguably the world's best playmaker. The Breakers were 2-0-2 against the Independence in the regular season.
"We dealt with Wambach and now we've got to deal with Smith, and we haven't dealt with Smith very well this year," Riley said after Sunday's victory.
The Independence got away with giving Wambach space in the midfield since she is most dangerous in front of goal, but Smith is capable of breaking down any back line when given such liberty. Her ability to pick out the likes of Lauren Cheney, Lindsay Tarpley, Kristine Lilly and Jordan Angeli could give Philadelphia problems. And there should be ample space for Boston to attack Philadelphia's defense, as the game will be played on a field that measures 116 yards by 74 yards -- a facility that is in stark contrast to the Independence's home field.
Offensively, Philadelphia must be more clinical in the box, given that chances will be limited against Boston. To their credit, Rodriguez and Lori Lindsey combined well to create opportunities and were denied on several occasions Sunday by world-class, acrobatic saves from Freedom goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris. Those two have to be on the same page Thursday to produce a victory and send the Independence into the title game against regular-season champion FC Gold Pride.
Thursday's game in Boston does not kick off until 8 p.m. ET and the winner will have to travel cross-country for Sunday's championship against FC Gold Pride in Hayward, Calif., with just two days to recover. For Philadelphia, that would mean a third game in a week after already playing an additional 30 minutes of overtime Sunday against Washington.
Even two games in three days would be tough on Boston. Thanks to the absurd TV schedule, Sunday's WPS championship kicks off at 2:30 p.m. ET, making the recovery period even shorter for the visiting team.
Meanwhile, the regular-season champions are fresh and have played scrimmages as if the bye week never happened. FC Gold Pride coach Albertin Montoya implemented that preparation plan to avoid collapsing as the favored Los Angeles Sol did last year in a 1-0 championship loss to Sky Blue FC.
There's no doubt that FC Gold Pride is the heavy favorite. The team is unbeaten in 13 straight games and has won all seven matchups against Boston (4-0) and Philadelphia (3-0) this season.
Boston has managed to play FC Gold Pride tighter thanks to similar playing styles. The Pride and the Breakers are the league's two most entertaining teams and both have downright scary attacking play. With Smith and Co. on the field against Marta, Christine Sinclair and the rest of the Pride attack, a Boston-FC Gold Pride matchup could produce an attractive championship product for WPS.
In contrast, Philadelphia is by far the most physical team in the league; its best attribute is an ability to frustrate opponents by disrupting their flow. However, if Philadelphia does reach the final, there is no doubt tired legs will have set in by that point. With a playoff system designed to heavily favor the regular-season champion, and considering FC Gold Pride's recent form, Sunday's result may be inevitable regardless of opponent.