Whereas last week was an opportunity to consider the second straight year a team’s running away with Women’s Professional Soccer’s regular season, it seems only fair to pause one more time to consider what the Philadelphia Independence have accomplished.
In their WPS first season, Philadelphia was not expected to keep-up with FC Gold Pride, whose acquisition of Marta (amongst others) had many picking them to pull a worst-to-first. The Independence, however, were a team whose ceiling was thought to be a playoff berth. Conventional wisdom was saw good-not-great defense in front of one of the league’s best goalkeepers (Karina LaBlanc) but no clear way of scoring goals.
With that limitation in mind it's time to note that not only are the Independence eight points clear of third place Boston but are also within two goals of Gold Pride for the league’s lead in scoring. Were Philadelphia’s success built merely on a story of a gritty, gutsy team making good, we could chalk their results up to a small sample size (16 games) or the wild variance we often see in young leagues. Philadelphia’s success, however, is much more straight-forward. They are undeniably, consistently able to score more goals than their opponents.
That may sound like a truism when applied to a team in second place of their league, but consider the place of the New York Red Bulls in WPS’s brother league, Major League Soccer. The Red Bulls sit in second place in the Eastern Conference, yet they have been outscored by their opponents. As their season goes on, they may continue to be slightly outscored by their opponents, so how come they are not closer to the league-average record a team that allows as many goals as it scores would be expected to put-up? It’s because of how their goals happened to be distributed - the timing of those goals within their season. They scored their goals with the right timing, something their numbers hint might not happen going forward.
Back to Womens’ Professional Soccer, we don’t see such secondary factors underpinning Philadelphia’s record. They’re scoring many more goals than the average team. They’re allowing slightly fewer than average, and they’re likely to do so going forward. In a league with five teams third-through-seventh fighting to be the best of the average, Philadelphia is decidedly above.
At the risk of overlooking Caroline Seger, last week’s WPS Player of the Week, there are two people to focus on when try ing to explain this unexpected success. First, Amy Rodriguez, the Philadelphia forward in whom the team invested so much. Before the season, the Independence traded the number two pick in the draft to the Breakers for Rodriguez, a move that led a few heads to be scratched. Rodriguez was coming off a miserable season in Boston while the draft was considered deep. Philadelphia looked to be overpaying.
On Wednesday against Chicago, Rodriguez scored two goals within the first 25 minutes, her tenth and 11th goals of the year, placing her in second amongst the league’s goal scorers, putting the match away for the Independence (who went on to win 3-0). Also tied for fourth in the league in assists, Rodriguez has gone from underachiever to one of the league’s best, playing so well that we may need to reconsider the reasons she underachieved in Boston. Given how Rodriguez has played at her new home, it’s perplexing to think her previous team couldn’t utilize her better.
That view of Rodriguez may be an oversimplification that underestimates the role of Paul Riley, Philadelphia’s coach. Early in the year it was very clear Riley was capable of stealing points for his team. Philadelphia was always more prepared and harder working than their opponents, attributes that are direct reflections of their coach. But beyond that kind of preparation and motivation, Riley deserves credit for the most basic part of coaching: getting the most out of the players he's given. Amy Rodriguez’s transition from Boston cast-off to league elite can’t be discussed without deference to Paul Riley.
The question is how far Riley can take the Independence. In a league devoid of challengers for Gold Pride, Philadelphia looks like the strongest candidate. They would only have to win once to face them in the title game, and with Amy Rodriguez and a coach capable of preparing a defense, the neophytes look the best equipped to continue denying Marta and Shannon Boxx their title. An early A-Rod goal, stout defending - a formula to beat anybody.
But can an expansion team, one with such low expectations at season’s onset, really be the league’s best hope? Teams three through seven have a month-and-a-half left to say otherwise.
As a reward for Rodriguez, Riley and the rest of the Independence racing away from that pack, Philadelphia gets a weekend off. They will return to action on Wednesday when they travel to Washington to take on the Freedom.
But this weekend, the Freedom start the docket with a trip to Boston to take on the third-place Breakers.
Washington Freedom at Boston Breakers, 6 p.m. Eastern, Harvard Stadium
We left-off last week wondering when coach Tony DiCicco was going to find the Breakers some goals. Then came last weekend’s trip to Bridgeview, two goals from Kelly Smith, and a much needed 3-1 win that vaulted Boston from sixth to third, a position the Breakers and their newfound attack will look to improve upon Saturday against the league’s worst defense.
Just as Boston’s had a two season struggle to score goals, Washington’s had a two season struggle preventing them, a struggle that reached its nadir on Wednesday. Then, the Freedom allowed three goals to Atlanta, a team that had scored only nine goals in franchise history. With the 3-2 loss, Washington fell to fifth place, now on the outside looking in on the playoff race.
Saturday’s match is also a Project Pink game - an initiative on the part of WPS and PUMA to raise breast cancer awareness. Boston will be wearing pink kits, with versions on sale from PUMA, where 100 percent of the sales will go to breast cancer research. In four more matches this year, teams will wear the pink jerseys in a season-long campaign to try and not only keep the cause in fans’ hearts but also allow them, though the project’s web site to nominate and decide which charity receives the support.
FC Gold Pride at Atlanta Beat, 5 p.m. Eastern, Kennesaw Soccer Stadium, Fox Soccer Channel
With their Wednesday win over Washington, the Beat have pulled themselves into the playoff race. Though they still sit at the bottom of the league, Atlanta is only two points out of a postseason spot. Unfortunately for the Beat, they’ll have to get a result from the league leaders in order to transcend that gap.
Gold Pride has only dropped points four times in sixteen matches this year and haven’t done so in a month. They’ve won five matches in a row, and the last time they faced Atlanta, they won 4-0.
Granted, with Gold Pride coming to end of a three game East Coast swing, this could be the time for the Beat to pull an upset, something that would give the national television audience an surprise reward for tuning-in.
Chicago Red Stars at Sky Blue FC, 7 p.m. Eastern, Yurcak Field
Sky Blue, the last team to beat Gold Pride, have had a week to think about their 4-1 loss to Philadelphia, but with the mid-week stumbles of Chicago and Washington, the defending champions maintain their hold on the last playoff spot. Since beating Gold Pride last month, Sky Blue has three losses in as many matches.
For the mysteries that are Boston’s scoring problems and Washington’s defending, Sky Blue is the biggest mystery of all. On their fifth coach in the 16 months since they kicked-off, there have been very few times in Sky Blue's history where they’ve looked like an above-average team. Helping to cover-over this is the only time they were a truly good team: the end of last season, when they ran through the playoffs to the league’s first title. While the talent on their team hints that they could replicate that success, nothing else from 15 out of 16 months of their existence supports that feeling.
And when you look at Sky Blue through that lens, there is little that separates them from Chicago. Granted, a league championship can’t readily be described as little, but Sky Blue finished fourth last year to Chicago’s sixth, and the teams come into Sunday’s came with the same standing. The last time the teams met, Chicago won 2-0 in Bridgeview, and while the switch in venue could lift Sky Blue, I want to know which Sky Blue team’s going to show up before I predict it will. Odds are about 1-to-15 that a beatable Blue greets Chicago on Sunday.