With Sky Blue FC kicking into second gear and improbably marching into the WPS Championship against Los Angeles on Saturday, fans are witnessing a team that is one win away from one of the biggest Cinderella stories in women’s sports and American soccer history.
Christie Rampone and company have turned what looked to be a sinking ship in New Jersey into a team that has gone on the road in two straight playoff matches and played attractive soccer on its way to an appearance in the final. Arguably, Sky Blue FC has played some of the most attractive soccer WPS has seen this season outside of the early season form of its opponent, the Los Angeles Sol.
Natasha Kai and Francielle propelled Sky Blue FC to a 2-1 win against Washington on Saturday, while Keeley Dowling was the unlikely goal scorer in Wednesday’s 1-0 Super Semifinal win over Saint Louis.With the squad’s recent form, it would be tough to guess how much turbulence the team has endured this season. First came the departure of Head Coach Ian Sawyers in late May, followed by the abrupt and still unexplained resignation of Kelly Lindsey, who had taken over for Sawyers.
Now, Sky Blue FC is under the direction of Interim Player/Coach, captain and defender Christie Rampone, and even through all of the adversity, the team is playing its best soccer and enjoying an unprecedented tactical awareness and understanding of individual roles on – and off – the field.In fact, this remarkable cross-country journey to the final is eerily similar to one that Major League Soccer fans witnessed just a few years ago.
On Novemeber 13, 2005, Guillermo “Pando” Ramirez fired a volley past New England Revolution goalkeeper Matt Reis to give the Los Angeles Galaxy a 1-0 win in extra time of MLS Cup 2005.Los Angeles entered the playoffs by default of Chivas USA and Real Salt Lake having terrible seasons as expansion teams. The Galaxy were the No. 4 seed in the West and the worst of the eight playoff teams, finishing level with Colorado on 45 pts. (13-13-6) and a goal differential of -1.
None of that mattered, though. The Galaxy got hot in late October – the perfect time to do so in Major League Soccer – and marched through the playoffs and on to a championship.Just as Sky Blue FC had to go on the road to beat Washington and Saint Louis, the Galaxy had to hold onto a lead in the second leg of the Western Conference Semifinal in San Jose before going into Mile High and securing a 2-0 win over Colorado on a cold November night in the Rocky Mountains. Then of course, the championship win came over New England at Pizza Hut Park.
The Galaxy, don’t forget, endured some coaching drama of its own. Steve Sampson took over the helm in Los Angeles on August 18, 2004, when Sigi Schmid was dismissed from a Galaxy side that he had in first place at the time. Los Angeles went on to struggle under Steve Sampson even while winning a championship and Sampson was eventually fired on June 6, 2006.Still, nothing compares to the coaching carousel that has gone on in New Jersey this season, but Sky Blue FC could be on a very similar (and perhaps even more improbable) championship run as the 2005 Los Angeles Galaxy.
Then again, the team could come up just short in a similar way that the New York Red Bulls did last year in their MLS Cup 2008 loss to the Columbus Crew.New York – which plays just up I-95 in Northern New Jersey – entered last years playoffs as the eighth and final team, but made what is now clearly a fluke run at MLS Cup.
All of these questions will be answered for Sky Blue FC on Saturday when it attempts to take down the Regular Season Champion Los Angeles Sol. Either way, Rampone will be proud of the run that the team has made even among all of the emotions that have come over it in the past few months.
“I think the girls have been amazing all season,” Rampone said before the Athletica match. “And at times we have been through so much from starting off with a losing record to battling back and making to the last game of the season to make the playoffs. We fought the whole way through and it just shows the leadership on this team and the character on this team.”
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