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Aug 21, 2009

Sol favored to beat Sky Blue FC in WPS final

CARSON, Calif. -- The inaugural season of Women's Professional Soccer will end in the same place it began -- Carson, Calif. -- as the Los Angeles Sol host the title match on Saturday, just as they hosted the season's first game. That day (March 29), the Sol beat the Washington Freedom 2-0 behind goals from Allison Falk and Camille Abily and never looked back -- going wire-to-wire and easily wrapping up the league's top seed, which automatically advanced Los Angeles to the championship game. On Saturday, they'll be facing Sky Blue FC, a team that has taken a much different route to the match. Sky Blue FC finished the regular season with a 7-8-5 record (26 points), including a crushing loss to the Washington Freedom in the regular-season final. They claimed the final playoff spot thanks to an 0-3-1 finish by the Boston Breakers. There's also the matter of three different coaches for Sky Blue FC this season. First, Ian Sawyers was fired in May. Then, his replacement, Kelly Lindsey, abruptly resigned on July 29 with two games left in the season. Now, team captain Christie Rampone is serving as interim player/coach, balancing her duties as a defender with her duties as head coach -- which has drawn praise from WPS commissioner Tonya Antonucci. "Coaching changes are a part of pro sports. They happen all the time and our league is not going to be immune to that," Antonucci said in a conference call Tuesday. "[Sky Blue FC] has really been resilient and responded so positively to two coaching changes this season. It's really quite a dramatic story that Christie Rampone has come on. She's a player, now a coach. She's a mom. And the captain. She's juggling all these responsibilities and they're having success." Sky Blue FC is trying to complete its improbable playoff run with its third straight road win in a span of eight days. They beat the high-scoring Freedom 2-1 in the first round, then topped Saint Louis Athletica 1-0 in Wednesday's Super Semifinal, despite a spectacular performance from Saint Louis goalkeeper Hope Solo. Sky Blue FC has gotten two game-winning goals from unlikely sources in this playoff run. In the win over Washington, little-used Francielle made just her second appearance of the year with the team after a midseason trade. On Wednesday, defender Keeley Dowling put one in the back of the net after Solo had stopped two great chances earlier in the first half. Sky Blue FC's own goalkeeper, Jenni Branam, has performed well in the two playoff wins as she battles an undisclosed illness. She has taken some hard knocks in the two wins. Branam finished the regular season with a 1.05 goals-against average. "They have come out and done very well [in the playoffs]. We are taking nothing for granted, " said Sol captain Shannon Boxx after training Friday. "We see the talent that they've always had on this team. Even though they didn't start out the season very well, I've always knew they had the talent to be a very good team. "It seems like now they're coming together as one team. They're a team that's on a good momentum and it's our job to break that momentum."

WPS Championship
Aug. 22
Los Angeles vs. Sky Blue FC
Home Depot Center, Carson, Calif.
4 p.m. ET

Though Sky Blue FC is on a hot streak, the Sol are still the clear favorites. Los Angeles finished the season with a 12-3-5 record (41 points), highlighted by an 11-game unbeaten streak. The Sol's star player, three-time FIFA Player of the Year Marta, leads WPS with 10 goals and is a top candidate for MVP. Their defense has been stellar -- conceding just 10 goals in 20 games -- four of which came in two meaningless games after the Sol had wrapped up the top seed. Goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc (.53 GAA) posted 12 clean sheets. Japanese international Aya Miyama ended the season tied for the league lead with six assists. In addition, the Sol went 2-0-1 against Sky Blue FC this year. Marta scored all three goals for Los Angeles, while Sky Blue FC has yet to find the back of the net vs. the Sol. On the flip side, the two teams did play to a 0-0 draw in their final meeting of the season on June 13 in New Jersey, one of the better performances against the Sol by any team this season. "They were good preparation games for us," said Rampone on a conference call Friday morning. "We know they have a lot of strong players, especially having Marta up in the front line. The back line has to be well aware of where she is at all times and not letting her break free." But while Sky Blue FC is trying to win its third game in eight days, the Sol are coming off a two-week break. WPS has a unique format for the playoffs, as the No. 1 seed advanced directly to the championship match, with three other teams fighting to face them (the No. 2 seed received a first-round bye and played in the Super Semifinal against the winner of the 3 vs. 4 game). Saturday's game will be a test of whether this format can produce a compelling title game. The Sol could be rusty -- and Sky Blue FC could be too tired. "We have a good momentum going. We've been battling each game. We have tired legs, but I think we just have to be mindful of the game and just approach the game right tactically in knowing that the L.A. Sol is a great team," Rampone said. "The momentum of our team and the way we've been playing and persevering through everything -- I think we're in the right mental side for it now going into the finals." Both teams have been hit hard by the European Championships, which have impacted the playoffs; six WPS players were forced to miss the postseason -- including the best offensive player for the Freedom and Athletica (Washington's Sonia Bompastor and Saint Louis' Eniola Aluko). On Saturday, Sky Blue FC once again will be without backup keeper Karen Bardsley (a big concern with Branam battling illness) and solid defender Anita Asante, as they play with the English national team. The Sol will be without their most clutch finisher, Camille Abily of France, who notched eight goals in just 13 shots on goal this season. 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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