Carson, Calif. – Sky Blue FC completed the most improbable WPS Championship run on Saturday when it defeated the Los Angeles Sol 1-0 at the Home Depot Center. U.S. international Heather O’Reilly scored the game’s only goal in the 16th minute when Natasha Kai flicked on defender Keeley Dowling’s cross from the right side. The ball dropped to O’Reilly, whose shot was partially deflected by Los Angeles goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc but still went into the side netting to put the visitors ahead 1-0.
Los Angeles could not muster up a comeback, and its chances were significantly hurt in the 27th minute when defender Allison Falk, who was determined to be the last defender, was shown a red card for tripping Kai.
The result was the third straight playoff victory on the road for Sky Blue FC, which defeated Washington 2-1 last Saturday in the opening round and Saint Louis 1-0 in the Super Semifinal on Wednesday.
After a Jeckyll and Hyde season in which Sky Blue FC showed glimpses of brilliance that were more often than not covered by haze and turmoil on and off the field, the ladies from New Jersey overcame all odds to run the table in the playoffs.
“Pure heart on our team and momentum and this team has really worked hard together,” Interim Player/Coach Christie Rampone said. “I think that shows in finals and in playoff time and its working for each other and not giving up and believing in each other. Everything we’ve been through we’ve grown so strong as a team. I really don’t think we have any superstars on the team – we’re just one team. Everyone works for each other and we all believe in each other and that’s what gets you there.”
With a regular season record of 7-8-5 (26 pts.), Sky Blue FC captured the inaugural WPS Championship by defeating all three WPS teams that it went winless against during the regular season. The Sky and Orange finished the regular season with a sub-.500 regular season record, with all seven wins coming against Boston, Chicago and FC Gold Pride, the three teams that failed to even make the playoffs. Against the league’s top three teams, Sky Blue FC composed a dismal 0-7-2 record. However, the state of New Jersey’s latest championship team went 3-0 against those same three teams (Washington, Saint Louis and Los Angeles) when it mattered, clearly showing that momentum is the biggest factor in the playoffs.
Los Angeles had not played a meaningful match since August 9th when it squeaked out a 2-1 win over Boston. After a poor finish to an otherwise stellar regular season, the Sol clearly still had not rediscovered the swagger that helped it cake-walk to the regular season title and paid the price for what was a relatively uninspiring perrformance.
The entire WPS Playoff format is setup to reward the Regular Season Champion with an automatic bye to the final, one that it gets to host on top of the extra week of rest.Meanwhile, Sky Blue FC was forced to go on the road to beat Washington on Saturday, August 15th, then traveled directly to Saint Louis for Wednesday’s Super Semifinal. After defeating Athletica, Sky Blue FC hopped on different flights to Los Angeles that night and arrived in SoCal in the wee hours of the morning. Their legs were tired after traveling across the country on a tour of tough road games, and yet the ladies of Sky Blue FC still overcame a Los Angeles side that was perhaps too well-rested.
Maybe the playoff system is not as large of an advantage for the Regular Season Champion as once perceived, as the No. 1 seed must sit idle for two weeks while its opponent gains momentum.
But really, how could anyone argue with the success of these WPS Playoffs?
Forget which team won the championship and just look at the broader picture. The country just witnessed a Cinderella story in which Sky Blue FC defeated all odds – from losing two coaches in as many months to battling fatigue on the road – to win a championship. It witnessed the drama of three intense playoff games all being decided by one goal.
For the folks in the league office, it does not get any better than that. Some might be upset at the fact that Los Angeles, the team that was clearly the best throughout the regular season, might not have really had that much of an advantage, but all excuses are put aside when the playoffs come around.Sky Blue FC,which could have easily come up with a laundry list of excuses for any shortcomings, did nothing put stay positive.
“I think the intangibles won that game for us,” Championship MVP and the game’s only goal-scorer Heather O’Reilly said. “You never wish that you go through so many ups and downs that we went through this season, but I think in the end its character building. I just think the fibers of this team are so close and so tight that nothing was going to break us. The Sol is a great team but I think that those intangibles really showed today.”
O’Reilly and company put everything aside and just played the game with a passion, intensity and chemistry that went unmatched by any other team in playoffs and kept its momentum rolling as the week went on. For that, Sky Blue FC will go into the history books as the inaugural Women’s Professional Soccer Champion.
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