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Aug 13, 2009

WPS playoff stage is set

The inaugural season of Women's Professional Soccer came down to the wire to decide the final playoff spot. The postseason action gets under way this weekend.

No. 3 seed Washington (8-7-5, 29 points) will host No. 4 seed Sky Blue FC (7-8-5, 26 points) on Saturday, with the winner advancing to the Super Semifinal on Aug. 19 against No. 2 seed Saint Louis Athletica (10-6-4, 34 points). The winner of that game will face the regular-season champion Los Angeles Sol (12-3-5, 41 points) on Aug. 22.

The Washington Freedom clinched their playoff spot with a home win over Sky Blue FC on Saturday, while the loser of that match had to wait for Boston to lose to Los Angeles on Sunday to punch their ticket to the postseason.

"It was nerve-racking," Sky Blue FC interim player/coach Christie Rampone said via telephone.

The two teams meet again Saturday for a rematch of Washington's 3-1 win this past Saturday, in which the Freedom were led by two goals from forward Abby Wambach and another from her strike partner Lisa De Vanna.

"[Wambach and De Vanna have] done an exceptional job, not only in the league but against us," Rampone said. "They've been scoring a lot of goals, and I think we have to stay tighter on them and really know where they are at all times -- both of them."

Wambach is tied for second in the league with eight goals, and De Vanna has contributed six of her own. The Freedom have been the biggest offensive threat in WPS with a league-leading 32 goals scored, but they've also conceded a league-leading 32 goals. Washington's been involved in the three highest-scoring games of the year: a 3-3 tie in St. Louis, a 4-3 win over FC Gold Pride and a 4-4 draw with Sky Blue FC in New Jersey in July. However, in all three of those games, the Freedom have altered the result in their favor with a goal in the 90th minute or later.

"It's very frustrating when you see three goals and four goals go into the back of your net," Freedom defender Cat Whitehill said via telephone. "You lose a little bit of confidence in yourself as a defender when that happens, but at the same time, you gain a lot of confidence in your offense, because even though we allowed four goals, we also scored four."

Because the European Championships are taking place in Finland this month, six European players will miss the playoffs. Sky Blue FC will be without central defender Anita Asante and backup keeper Karen Bardsley, who will play for England. The Freedom will be without All-Star midfielder Sonia Bompastor, the captain of the French national team, who is tied for the league lead with six assists and has also tallied four goals.

"Sonia's had an MVP-type year, and we owe a lot of what this team has become [to] her. What you see on the field is obvious: her dynamic runs, her crazy defense. She's just a player that will never stop," Whitehill said. "It's hard to replace a player like Sonia, and we just have to count on other players to step up."

The winner of the Freedom-Sky Blue FC game will then travel to St. Louis to take on the Athletica, which will be without its biggest offensive threat, Eniola Aluko, as she will be away with the English national team. Aluko was voted into the starting All-Star lineup, though she is unable to play in the Aug. 30 game. Her six goals and four assists have accounted for more than half of Saint Louis' 19 goals scored. Athletica defender Tina Ellertson said Tuesday that Aluko has been an important part of the team this year, but the tandem of Christie Welsh and Sarah Walsh has been clicking lately.

"Welsh, right now she's putting the ball in the back of the net, and Walsh right now is just running at back lines and putting them on their heels," Ellertson said via telephone.

Welsh was acquired in May via a trade with the Sol after Saint Louis' star midfielder Daniela went down with a serious knee injury, from which she has yet to return. Walsh came to the Athletica on June 26 after a trade with Sky Blue FC. Coach Jorge Barcellos has said the trade for the Australian forward was needed in part because of the playoff absence of Aluko. Welsh and Walsh have started up top together in the past two games, with Welsh tallying all three of Saint Louis' goals in that span.

The Athletica will also be without midfielder Sara Larsson of Sweden.

No matter what happens with its attack, the Athletica will still have MVP candidate Hope Solo in net. Solo trails only Karina LeBlanc of Los Angeles in the major goalkeeping categories, but has made more saves and faced more shots, despite playing in two fewer games. Seven of Solo's 8 cleansheets this season have come when Saint Louis has scored one goal or fewer, and the team is 6-0-1 in those games.

"She's the best goalie in the world. I will say this every day for the rest of my life. There's nobody better than her; nobody even touches her," Ellertson said.

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Sol are enjoying two weeks off and will face the winner of the Super Semifinal on Aug. 22 at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif. After a 2-1 come-from-behind win over Boston in Sunday's regular-season finale, Sol forward Marta said the two-week break is coming at the right time.

"I think it's good because we have time for work … training," Marta said, forgoing a translator and responding to a few postgame questions in English. "Take it easy. Take it easy, but concentration."

The wire-to-wire regular-season champions struggled down the stretch -- losing to Saint Louis, tying FC Gold Pride and then losing to Chicago -- but they seemed to find their form again with the win over Boston.

"I think it's good that it happened, and we've come back stronger," Sol midfielder Aly Wagner said of the team's recent slide.

Los Angeles played its best soccer Sunday when midfielder Camille Abily was substituted into the game, which is not entirely good news for the Sol. They will have to play the title match without her, as she'll also be playing in the European championships, joining Bompastor on the French national team. Abily is the team's second-leading scorer behind Marta and was also voted into the All-Star starting lineup.

The Sol have been working on playing without Abily in the midfield for the past few weeks, and after Sunday's match head coach Abner Rogers said the team knows how it plans to play without her.

MVP

FC Gold Pride forward Tiffeny Milbrett won the inaugural MVP trophy in the now-defunct Women's United Soccer Association (while with the New York Power), and she recently weighed in on who she thought would win the award this year.

"I betcha anything Marta is gonna win it. I think she's been phenomenal," Milbrett said. "She's just been an important piece to the puzzle [for the Los Angeles Sol] and somebody [who is] so dangerous all the time."

Marta, the three-time FIFA Player of the Year, came into the league with much hype and has not disappointed. She's had a stellar season, and her 10 goals and three assists -- as well as all she brings to the field when she doesn't even have the ball at her feet -- are a big reason why the Sol have had the success they have this season.

If Marta is named the league's MVP, she'll be honored with the award named after legendary U.S. midfielder Michelle Akers, widely considered one of the best to ever play women's soccer.

"I think it's great," Milbrett said upon learning that Akers, her former U.S. national team teammate, would be honored by WPS. "In my opinion, [Akers is] the best player in the world all-time. Just with what she possessed -- her skill, her size, her ability, her speed, strength -- everything. … I really am happy to hear that, because I respect her so much and she deserves it."

Jacqueline Purdy covers women's soccer for ESPN.com. She also is an editor for ESPNRadio.com. She can be reached by e-mail at jacquelinepurdy@gmail.com and friended on ESPN's fan profiles.

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