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Aug 22, 2009

Sky Blue FC caps tumultuous season with WPS title

CARSON, Calif. -- No matter what was put in front of Sky Blue FC of New Jersey this year, they seemed to find a way to overcome it. From two coaching changes to a rough playoff schedule, they just kept playing and knocking off the best teams in the league, capturing the 2009 Women's Professional Soccer championship with a 1-0 victory over the Los Angeles Sol on Saturday at the Home Depot Center.

The No. 4 seed needed to beat high-scoring Washington on Aug. 15 (a 2-1 win in Washington) and get past a tough defense from Saint Louis Athletica on Wednesday (a 1-0 win in St. Louis) just to earn the chance to play the No. 1-seeded Los Angeles Sol, who had advanced directly to the championship match and had been in first every day of the inaugural season of WPS.

Sky Blue FC almost didn't make the playoffs. In their final game, needing a win to secure a playoff spot, they fell 3-1 to the Washington Freedom, knocking them into fifth place. Sky Blue FC had to wait until the next day and root for the Sol to beat the Boston Breakers -- which Los Angeles did, coming from behind to win 2-1 thanks to goals from Marta and Shannon Boxx.

Sky Blue FC thanked the Sol by upsetting the league's best team. And all this was done with the team's third coach of the season, who also happens to be its captain and starting central defender, Christie Rampone. Sky Blue FC's first head coach, Ian Sawyers, was fired in May. His replacement, Kelly Lindsey, abruptly resigned on July 29 with Sky Blue FC two games out a playoff spot, before Rampone took over and the team went on this improbable run.

"This team has really worked hard together and that shows in finals and in playoff time. It's working for each other and not giving up and believing in each other," Rampone said after the match. "Everything we've been through, I think we grew so strong as a team."

Sky Blue FC midfielder Heather O'Reilly, who said after practice Friday that she was too nervous to even watch Los Angeles' win over Boston -- choosing to play golf while text messaging with her teammates for the score -- was named the MVP of the title match. Her goal in the 16th minute stood up despite a relentless Sol attack -- led by three-time FIFA player of the year Marta -- that spent much of the second half putting pressure on Sky Blue FC's back line. O'Reilly also made a key tackle in the box on Aya Miyama in the 52nd minute to shut down a dangerous Sol attack.

"The intangibles won that game for us," O'Reilly said. "You never wish that you go through so many ups and downs that we went through this season, but in the end it's so character building. I just think the fibers of this team are so close and so tight that nothing was going to break us."

Marta, the most dangerous player in WPS with a league-leading 10 goals, was rarely left open Saturday, and Sky Blue FC players swarmed her on nearly every touch she took.

"I think we did a good job, especially having Marta, with that speed that never tires," Rampone said. "I think we did a good job of just being mindful of where she was ... instead of more man-marking her and trying to frustrate her. She's a great player. ... We definitely have a lot of respect for her, but I just think the back line did a good job of communicating where she was at all times."

The win wasn't without controversy, as Sol defender Allison Falk was red carded in the 27th minute for a foul on Natasha Kai. Referee Kari Seitz apparently judged Falk was the last defender, even though Stephanie Cox appeared to be in close proximity. While Sky Blue FC had been playing well before Falk was sent off, playing with 10 is difficult for any team, even the best team in the league.

"I didn't feel it was a red card. I thought it was a poor decision," Sol coach Abner Rogers said. "Stephanie Cox was a recovering player. [Falk] wasn't the last defender. It wasn't a blatant tackle. It was a clumsy tackle. It was a questionable yellow."

The attendance for the final fell well short of what WPS was surely hoping for, drawing only 7,218 -- the fourth-best turnout in the league this year, just about half the number that saw the Sol win the inaugural match in the same venue on March 29. But those who were there saw a thrilling game that came down to the closing moments, when the Sol attacked nonstop until it was over.

"Now, with a great final and I think this team has a great story, hopefully we can get the word out about the league," Rampone said. "It gives us time to also get out in New Jersey. I think we need to spend a little bit more time in the community and start selling the league a little bit better on the players' side. We did a great job on the field, but now it's just being a little bit more mindful and getting the work done off the field as well. I think the league has done an exceptional job. We started small and we're going to build up."

For the Sol, it's a disappointing end to a season in which they dominated the opposition for the most part, but struggled near the end, going 1-3-1 in their last five games, including the final. Saturday's loss came after a two-week layoff and in the absence of their second-leading scorer, midfielder Camille Abily of France, who missed the final while preparing for the European Championships, which begin Sunday.

Rampone is 4-1 as player/coach, but insisted after the match she has no intention of leading the team in a similar fashion any longer.

"I still want to play the game," she said. "I think I can do a better job being on the field and maybe helping the head coach next year, but I definitely put my time in and I'm retiring as coach for now until I'm done playing."

Whoever Sky Blue FC decides to bring in as head coach, Rampone's efforts to keep the team together after a tumultuous season will certainly be a tough act to follow.

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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