Flash-magicJack showdown draws huge crowd, gives WPS optimism

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- It may not have been the highest scoring game in WPS history, but it sure lived up to the hype. Sunday's battle between the previously unbeaten pair of Western New York Flash and magicJack was far from a display of tactical genius, but it was the most entertaining match WPS has showcased to date.

Western New York won 3-0, but the 16 shots for each team and four clanked crossbars put on a memorable show for the 8,076 fans in Rochester -- the second largest stand-alone crowd in league history behind WPS' inaugural match in 2009. The wide open nature of the match made it feel like an all-star game, a bright spot that a struggling WPS so desperately needed.

It's no surprise the game was an attacking affair. Western New York employs three world-class strikers in Marta, Christine Sinclair and the emerging Alex Morgan, yet magicJack inexplicably stuck to its 3-4-3 formation. Nobody would logically expect three defenders to contain those three strikers, but that is exactly the point. Dan Borislow, magicJack team owner, wants to play wide-open soccer.

"That's part of what our owner wants to put on the field," magicJack striker Abby Wambach said. "He obviously wants to win, first and foremost, but he wants to make it an exciting game. That is why we play three back. That's why we play a man-marking system.

"Very unconventional; unlike anything most soccer minds -- and I am sure my national team coach wishes we wouldn't do it, but it's exciting to watch, because not only are you getting some chances in the attack but the other team is going to get some chances like they did tonight."

Defender Tina Ellertson actually did a spectacular job of containing Marta throughout the evening. The Brazilian playmaker grew increasingly frustrated throughout the match as the taller, stronger Ellertson continuously forced Marta to the outside of the pitch and away from dangerous positions. Morgan and Sinclair were also kept in check -- both looked tired from recent travel and a step slower than their usual pace.

In a match where the most potent three forward combination in WPS should have lit up magicJack's daring defensive system, the match was actually won in the midfield. Flash central midfielders Becky Edwards and Caroline Seger accounted for all three goals on the day (Seger had two).

Even the limited success that Marta and Sinclair had came from deep positions. Sinclair assisted on Seger's first goal just before halftime by drawing out magicJack's back line and playing a through ball to the overlapping Seger. Marta was also forced to drop deep into the midfield in order to find the ball, but her presence drew defensive attention and gave her teammates space to work with.

Western New York is the deepest team in WPS. Yael Averbuch, who was on the brink of making the United States' Women's World Cup roster, came off the bench in this match. Even when Marta, Sinclair and Morgan are shut down, there's still Seger, Edwards, Brittany Bock and an assortment of other dangerous players to deal with.

Flash coach Aaran Lines took advantage of magicJack's man-marking system to draw out the magicJack back line. Ellertson may have controlled Marta, but by following her across the pitch, it left gaping holes for Seger and the Flash midfield to run through..

In one respect, it's a shame that Ellertson and Becky Sauerbrunn -- two of WPS' best defenders -- don't get to play in a system that frequently rewards them with tough, defensive-oriented performances. MagicJack could have been more successful in a standard four defender formation that supported Ellertson's shadowing of Marta. But that would have meant grinding out a low-scoring result. Where is the fun in that?

As crazy as things have been with magicJack on and off the field, this wild brand of soccer could entice enough fans to boost a league that has been written off by just about everyone. Unfortunately for WPS, these kinds of games don't happen often -- let alone on national television. The league hit the jackpot with a perfect storm on Sunday: A big crowd on national television for Wamach's professional return to her hometown and the league's two most entertaining teams eclipsing the hype in a shootout that felt like a crossbar challenge competition. Of the 22 starters, 16 have earned a cap for their national team.

The big question: Is the match just a novelty? Western New York returns home on June 3 against Sky Blue FC. No Wambach, no daringly defenseless magicJack, just the league's top team back in action at home. Boston will also look to follow-up its crowd of 6,128 that showed up on Sunday for Kristine Lilly's jersey retirement. With WPS still in a fledgling state, days like Sunday won't happen very often. But if Sunday's Flash-magicJack shooting clinic did not attract new fans, nothing will.

Elsewhere --

Sky Blue FC 3-0 Atlanta Beat

On Saturday, Sky Blue FC defeated the Atlanta Beat 3-0 to earn its largest margin of victory in team history. More importantly, it was one of Sky Blue FC's most convincing performances since its 2009 championship run. Heather O'Reilly's introduction to the match in the 33rd minute changed the entire flow of the game. Suddenly, Sky Blue FC (1-3-1, 4 pts.) found more width in the attack and Atlanta's defense had to worry about the blistering pace of O'Reilly on the right flank.

The midfield continues to be the strength for Sky Blue FC. Allie Long, Angie Kerr and Carolyn Blank overmatched Atlanta (1-5-1, 4 pts.) in the middle of the park. Sky Blue FC's defense was particularly solid on the night and new addition Adriana continues to prove that her technical ability adds a second dimension the attack.

Boston Breakers 1-1 Philadelphia Independence

Tasha Kai continued her revival in Philadelphia (2-1-2, 8 pts.) with a goal in the Independence's 1-1 draw with Boston on Sunday. The goal was only Kai's second of the year -- both of which have come against Boston -- but Kai's work ethic is better than ever. Her resiliency to chase down any ball over the top is matched by her willingness to track back and defend from behind.

Meanwhile, Boston (2-4-1, 7 pts.) is winless in its last three matches. Alyssa Naeher had a better night in net than she did the week prior in a 3-2 loss to the Flash. Surely it helped that Boston's starting defense was back from international duty, but Naeher still had to make eight saves on Sunday.

Jeff Kassouf is a freelance writer who runs The Equalizer, a Web site devoted to women's professional soccer news.