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Aug 18, 2009

Saint Louis, Sky Blue FC have come a long way

It's fitting that after a season of flip-flopping standings in the inaugural season of Women's Professional Soccer, Wednesday's Super Semifinal will feature two teams that spent time at the bottom of the table earlier this season. No. 2 seed Saint Louis Athletica (10-6-4, 34 points) will host No. 4 Sky Blue FC (7-8-5, 26 points). The winner faces the top-seeded Los Angeles Sol in the title match on Saturday in Carson, Calif.

On May 3, Saint Louis and Sky Blue FC were both 0-2-2 and tied for last place.

The standings were tight all season, always giving teams the chance to climb back up in the rankings. It took until the last day of the regular season for the final playoff spot to be tied up. Sky Blue FC sneaked into the playoffs after the Boston Breakers lost on Aug. 9, but then proved their worth with a 2-1 road win over the No. 3 seed Washington Freedom last weekend.

(Four teams in the seven-team WPS make the playoffs, with the No. 1 seed automatically in the championship game; the Nos. 3 and 4 seeds played in the first round, with the winner advancing to play the No. 2 seed in the Super Semifinal.)

Sky Blue FC's first-round win was somewhat of a surprise. The club is on its third coach of the season, interim player/coach Christie Rampone, but her coaching moves paid off in the win over the Freedom as two of the team's substitutes -- Natasha Kai and little-used Francielle -- scored in the win.

"I've been working hard all season and I was very excited to get into the game. I wanted to prove to the coaches that I can be on the field with all these other players," Francielle told reporters after the game, according to a game report issued by Sky Blue FC. The 19-year-old Brazilian was traded from Saint Louis to Sly Blue FC on June 26, and she had played just 28 minutes since the move before entering Saturday's match.

Sky Blue FC took advantage of a Washington Freedom team that was playing without its most dynamic player -- All-Star and MVP candidate Sonia Bompastor -- who has ignited the Freedom attack all season with four goals and six assists. Bompastor left the squad after the end of the regular season because of international duty; her French national team will compete in the European Championships, which begin Aug. 23. FIFA rules say players must be released by their club teams 14 days before the start of the tournament.

For Sky Blue to advance again in the playoffs, they'll have to win another road game, this time over the second-stingiest defense in the league and a Saint Louis team that boasts four All Stars, including goalkeeper Hope Solo, a strong MVP candidate. Saint Louis has given up just 15 goals this season (second only to first place Los Angeles' 10).

Both teams come into the game in very different places. Despite their rough start, the Athletica have been hot down the stretch, going 6-1-2 in their last nine games. Sky Blue FC has been riding a roller coaster all season, losing their first two coaches -- Ian Sawyers, who was fired, and then his replacement Kelly Lindsey, who abruptly resigned on July 29 -- before Rampone took over as interim player/coach.

Although Saint Louis will have had 10 days off between games -- without a meaningful game since clinching the No. 2 seed on Aug. 2 -- Athletica defender Tina Ellertson said via telephone that the time off has come at the right time.

"I think it comes at a great time," Ellertson said. "We had a lot of our rest time in the beginning of the season, so we've been going pretty hard. At the tail end of the season, we had game after game after game. I think this is a good rest time for us, work out some kinks and rest some legs."

Ellertson gives coach Jorge Barcellos credit for keeping the team together during its struggles.

"Jorge's just been steady, constant," Ellertson said. "We started off really rocky but he kept believing in all of us. … He finds a way to push us, finds a way to bring out the best in us. We had our ups and downs this season, but he's just been a good leader. He's been a great coach."

The winner of Wednesday's game will face regular-season champion Los Angeles (12-3-5, 41 points) in the championship match on Saturday at the Home Depot Center. The Sol are led, of course, by three-time FIFA Player of the Year Marta, whose 10 goals and three assists make her a strong MVP candidate.

While WPS fans follow the playoffs, they'll also be keeping watch on the European Championships in Finland as nine WPS players, including five All-Stars, take part in the tournament. And those European players will be watching the WPS playoffs, as well. Four of those players are from teams still left in the playoffs: Sky Blue FC's Anita Asante and Karen Bardsley, Saint Louis All-Star Eniola Aluko and Los Angeles All-Star Camille Abily.

It's not just those players who are interested in the results while they are Finland. Although the Breakers were eliminated from playoff contention on the last day of the season, Breakers All-Star Alex Scott said she plans to keep a close eye on all the playoff action. Scott is in Finland with her English national team and said there will be high interest in Wednesday's Super Semifinal, as three of her teammates (Aluko, Asante and Bardsley) will be watching their WPS teams face off against each other.

"Both Sky Blue and Saint Louis have proved all season that if everyone works their socks off and shows a lot of heart on the pitch, then a lot of the time that can be more than just relying on talent," Scott wrote in an e-mail. "They are both very hardworking teams and the game can swing either way. I do think Saint Louis will miss Eniola, but no team can rely on one player."

Aluko, who accounted for more than half of Saint Louis' goal production during the regular season, said she plans to follow her team's playoff games online and will be in contact with her Athletica teammates while she is in Finland.

"I've learned that it's not how you begin, it's how you end," Aluko said when reached by telephone last week while training in England. "And I think Saint Louis' season kind of encompasses that. We started off at the bottom of the league, we hadn't won in four games, and now we're being talked about as [possibly winning] the championship."

As for the English national team, there is a lot of optimism; the team heads into the tournament with six WPS players on its roster. England plays its first game on Aug. 25 against Italy.

"The mood was very upbeat, the atmosphere was very relaxed, but at the same time very competitive with a purpose," Scott said of last week's training camp in England. "Now we are here in Finland, there is a real focus as the game approaches. You always want to make sure you win your first game in the group, but Italy will provide a tough test."

Aluko said WPS has helped in her development and will help her as a member of the English national team.

"Coming back into an international environment, I know that any game that I play, there's no need to be nervous because I've played 20 games that are pressure games. For me, the European Championships now is just an extension of what I've experienced."

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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