WPS battle for playoff spots takes shape as postseason approaches

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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 ...

1. Public, meet Christen Press -- Alex Morgan has gotten all the attention as the up and coming star of the U.S. women's national team and it has been completely deserved. But fellow first year professional Christen Press is putting together a season worthy of the Rookie of the Year Award. The magicJack forward scored a hat trick on Saturday in her team's 4-0 victory over the Boston Breakers to give her eight goals in 13 games. That is tied with Philadelphia Independence forward Tasha Kai for second in the league, just one off the pace of veteran Western New York Flash forward Christine Sinclair.

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.

2. Vero, Vero, Vero -- Philadelphia forward Veronica "Vero" Boquete scored the game-winning goal in both of Philadelphia's 1-0 victories last week (defeating Boston on Wednesday and Atlanta on Sunday). She has now registered five goals and four assists in just nine games with the Independence after joining the team midseason. The Spanish international playmaker is making a strong case for consideration as league MVP as she tears through defenses with absolute grace.

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.

3. Atlanta needs a few more Chalupny's -- The Atlanta Beat continued to show on Sunday that the team is just a few established players away from being competitive in WPS. Lori Chalupny and Kelly Parker stood out in Sunday's loss to Philadelphia by working their way into dangerous positions all evening. Both were active in front of net, and Chalupny should have put Atlanta ahead before the half, but Independence goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart came off her line well to deny the Atlanta captain and keep the game scoreless.

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.

4. Sky is the limit or Sky falling out? Sky Blue FC put together a head-scratcher of a week with a huge 2-0 victory over magicJack on the road on Wednesday followed by a 4-1 loss to Western New York on Saturday in front of a sold-out home crowd. Sky Blue remains tied on points with magicJack for third place. If the playoffs began today, Sky Blue and magicJack would both join the Flash and Independence in the playoffs.

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.

5. Breakers need points, fast -- Boston's 4-0 loss to magicJack on Saturday was an eye-opening score line, but most shockingly, the loss came even with the inclusion of U.S. defenders Amy LePeilbet, Rachel Buehler and Stephanie Cox. This defense, with English right back Alex Scott, is one of the last in the league that would be expected to be routed, but things fell apart quickly on Saturday. Now the Breakers face an uphill climb with a road match against the Flash on Wednesday and a home game against magicJack on Saturday.

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.

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