These I-95 rivals played some riveting games this season, including the highest-scoring affair in WPS, when the Washington Freedom scored late in stoppage time to steal a 4-4 tie in mid-July. In three games this year, the Freedom outscored Sky Blue FC 9-6 going 2-0-1 against their East Coast rivals. This WPS First Round will be a re-match of last week’s playoff clinching match-up at the Maryland SoccerPlex, when the Freedom rode two goals by Abby Wambach to a 3-1 victory and the right to host the first playoff game in WPS history. The rematch was made possible when Boston lost to Los Angeles the next day, clinching a spot for Sky Blue FC. The Freedom are coming in hot, having won four of their last five games and were a solid 5-2-3 at home this year, the second-best home record in the league (some games played at RFK Stadium).
To have any chance at advancing to the Super Semifinal, Sky Blue FC will have to neutralize Washington’s potent offense like they did to other teams’ this season with stingy defense. The Freedom’s nine goals against Sky Blue FC accounted for almost half of the goals scored against the New Jersey side all regular season; indeed, the rest of the league notched only 11 goals against Sky Blue FC. Goalkeeper Jenni Branam will need to come up with some big stops, while player-coach Christie Rampone and the defensive backline will need to put Wambach and speedy Lisa De Vanna on lockdown.
One huge X-factor for Washington will be the absence of French midfielder Sonia Bompastor, one of the most exciting players in WPS this season. Bompastor had a hand in one-third of the Freedom’s nine goals this year against Sky Blue FC with an assist or score. She is now with the French national team at the 2009 European Championships and the Freedom will look to Ali Krieger, who joined the team from FFC Frankfurt in midseason, or perhaps Allie Long to carry some of the pressure of that playmaking midfielder role.
On the Sky Blue FC’s offensive side, getting goal production from star forward Natasha Kai will be absolutely crucial. Sky Blue FC is an impressive 4-0-1 this season when Kai puts the ball in the back of the net, the only blemish being the 4-4 tie with Washington when Kai scored twice. Unlike Washington, Sky Blue FC doesn’t have a variety of players who can score, with Rosana and Kacey White the only others who’ve shown consistent scoring ability. Winning on the road hasn’t come easy for Sky Blue FC – they are 2-6-2 this year – but nothing this season has come easy, as they have stared down adversity time and again, both on-and-off the field in 2009 to make the playoffs.
This game could come down to one fantastic play – a key save or a great score – and how the team that falls behind after the first goal in the history of the WPS Playoffs stares adversity in the face. Expect an exciting match down to the final minute.