Week 8 of WPS action was the last weekend that U.S. women's national team players will take part in WPS matches until they return from the Women's World Cup in July. With that in mind and all six WPS teams in action, coaches and players gambled to get results as the halfway point of the season approaches. Here are five things learned in WPS Week 8:
1. Sky Blue FC is finally defending its home turf. Last year Sky Blue FC went a measly 2-4-5 at home and missed the playoffs. In 2009, the team won the championship behind a strong 5-2-3 home record. Thus far, coach Jim Gabarra's squad has played well at home, defeating the Boston Breakers 2-1 on Saturday at Yurcak Field. Carolyn Blank's 88th-minute winner improved Sky Blue FC's record to 2-0-1 at home, with the only blemish being a 2-2 draw with the Philadelphia Independence on opening day. The goal is a statistical reward for Blank, who has done well in more of a ball-winning central midfield role.
If Sky Blue FC expects to find its way into the playoffs, it will need to maintain its home form. Sky Blue FC and Boston will likely end up in a fight for the fourth and final playoff spot, making matches like this critical. Boston and Sky Blue FC currently sit level in that fourth position with seven points this season. For the Breakers, Saturday's disappointment was nothing new: Boston has never won a game in New Jersey.
2. Goals are pouring in. After 20 matches, goal scoring this season sits at exactly three goals per game, which is up from both previous seasons. In particular, it is a significant increase over the 2.14 goals per game WPS produced in 2009. Last week's epic showdown between magicJack and Western New York -- which the Flash won 3-0 -- was followed up by magicJack's four-goal performance in which Abby Wambach delivered a hat trick in the 4-0 win over Atlanta.
Also of note is how evenly distributed individual goal scoring has been thus far. Wambach's hat trick gives her four goals this season, tied for the league lead alongside Western New York's Christine Sinclair. Flash teammates Marta and Caroline Seger have three goals apiece followed by several players with two goals each. Last season Marta ran away with the goal scoring title, netting 19 goals in 24 games. Abby Wambach was the next closest with 13 tallies in 2010.
3. Skipping to a different Beat. Atlanta's 4-0 trouncing at the hands of magicJack on Saturday ensured that the Beat (1-6-1, 4 pts.) stayed in last place in WPS. That's where most pundits had predicted the team might end up and while it is still early in the season, Atlanta's four points from eight matches suggests that those predictions could prove accurate.
"Take away the score line and we really played well," said Atlanta coach James Galanis to reporters following the match. "Again, it's the mistakes that let us down. We have to keep plugging away and keep supporting the players. Each one of us felt that we played a lot better than we had in the previous three weeks."
While Atlanta has shown some signs of good play (most notably in a surprising 2-2 draw with Western New York on April 14), it is hard to imagine how things could have improved in a 4-0 loss. Developing players is critical to the future of the game and Atlanta is committed to doing that, but with Beat fans growing restless, responsibility has to be taken by the players and coaching staff for results like this.
4. Philly hangs tough against Flash even in sluggish outing. The Philadelphia Independence lost 2-1 to Western New York on Sunday, but the Independence should take some optimism away from the match. Megan Rapinoe opened the scoring with a long-range strike and Philadelphia controlled the opening 15 minutes before the Flash fired back with two quick goals.
Neither team looked very sharp on the day, something that probably had to do with the hot temperature in Philadelphia. Although Independence coach Paul Riley was unhappy with his team's performance -- one that lacked much sense of urgency -- he can be somewhat happy with the fact that Philadelphia hung with the Flash throughout the match. Had Western New York goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris not parried Tasha Kai's header over the bar in the 65th minute, Philadelphia could have picked up a point against the unbeaten Flash. The Independence get two more cracks at the Flash and both games fall during a time when U.S. women's national team players will be missing, leaving Western New York more vulnerable.
5. Will Marta's team cruise to the final again? Vulnerable is not a word very often used to describe the Western New York Flash, which has proved that it can be dominant even in the absence of its top international players. Midfielders Brittany Bock and Becky Edwards and utility player McCall Zerboni are having spectacular (and underrated) seasons thus far.
At 6-0-1, Western New York has an eight-point lead at the top of the table with magicJack sitting in a distant second place. That should not come as much of a surprise with two-time WPS MVP and five-time FIFA Player of the Year Marta on the Flash's roster. In 2009, Marta's LA Sol ran away with the regular season title before shifting into cruise control and finishing seven points ahead of Saint Louis Athletica. Last season was even more dominating, with the Brazilian's FC Gold Pride team winning the regular season by a comfortable 17 pts. Could she make it three years in a row, this time with the Flash? Early on, it is looking that way.
Sky Blue FC 2-1 Boston Breakers
Therese Sjogran assisted on both goals for Sky Blue FC as it kept Boston winless in New Jersey. Eniola Aluko scored in the 58th minute and Carolyn Blank hit the winner in the 88th minute. Kelley O'Hara's 50th minute strike was not enough for the Breakers.
magicJack 4-0 Atlanta Beat
Abby Wambach's hat trick was complimented by Sarah Huffman's 13th-minute goal to give magicJack the emphatic victory.
Philadelphia Independence 1-2 Western New York Flash
Megan Rapinoe struck what looked to be a mis-hit cross into the upper 90 in just the ninth minute to give Philadelphia the lead, but Becky Edwards scored five minutes later and Marta buried a PK in the 21st minute for the Flash.
Jeff Kassouf is a freelance writer who runs The Equalizer, a Web site devoted to women's professional soccer news.