ALLSTON, Mass., July 21, 2010—Soccer matches turn on moments, brief bursts of play when scoring chances arrive and are either slammed home or left hanging in the mist of what might have been.
Wednesday night at Harvard Stadium, FC Gold Pride, the best team in WPS, hammered home its scoring opportunities. The Boston Breakers, a surging side and now a playoff contender, couldn't.
The result was a 2-1 Gold Pride victory that featured a stunning goal by the world's best player and groan-inducing miss by Boston that would have been an equalizer had the Breakers converted.
For Breakers fans, the miss will be the enduring memory of an entertaining game in which Boston continued its run of excellent play but couldn't manage to topple the league leader. It happened in the 73rd minute with the Breakers down 2-1.
Kristine Lilly sent a near perfect cross from the right wing to the far post of Nicole Barnhart's goal. Tiffany Weimer, who had replaced Jordan Angeli just five minutes before, raced to meet Lilly's cross and managed to get a head on it.
The ball seemed destined for the back of the net but instead hit the post, caromed off and bounced freely in front of goal. A couple of players in a crowd of bodies took swipes at it, but it eventually ended up into the hands of Barnhart.
"I saw somebody put their foot up on the other team," Weimer, the diminutive Boston forward, said, "[I was] trying to avoid the foot, trying to get the ball, and I think it hit off the post and came back out. I’m not really known for my heading so it was a big moment for me, but I kind of wish it went in the back of the net."
Alas, it didn't, and the Breakers failed over the next 17-plus minutes to create another chance as golden as that one. It wasn't the only chance that Boston missed, though. Down 2-1 at the break after having scored first, the Breakers came out firing in the second half.
In the 55th minute, Lilly had a clear shot on goal after a lovely run but booted the ball right into Barnhart's hands. Five minutes later, Boston forward Lindsay Tarpley saw her ambitious shot from the right wing saved by Barnhart. And in the 80th minute, Breakers substitute Lauren Cheney couldn't quite get on the end of a cross from Kelly Smith.
"We’re getting good opportunities, and I think we’re going to put them away," Boston goal scorer Jordan Angeli said. "It’s only a matter of time until some of them start going in like habit. We reacted pretty well [to Gold Pride taking the lead]; we just couldn't get one in the back of the net."
Angeli was the only Breaker who did find the back of the net. She opened the scoring in the 30th minute with her third strike in as many games. It was defender Alex Scott who really did the work for the goal, though.
Scott cut a nifty slalom down the right wing through several defenders before picking out Angeli, who, unmarked and standing in front of goal, only had to nail the ball underneath Barnhart—which she did with supreme confidence.
"I was like, 'I’ve just got to be in the right spot.' I was there," Angeli said. "I had a great cross, and I just didn’t even think about it. I put it away."
The Breakers, winners of three games in a row coming into Wednesday night's match, saw their lead last all of five minutes. It was a mistake that led to Gold Pride's equalizer.
An errant back pass from Boston defender Amy LePeilbet to goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher drew Naeher well off her line and out beyond her right-hand post. Gold Pride defender Ali Riley charged down the ball and, after Naeher stumbled, slotted a pass to Christine Sinclair, who fired into an empty net.
"[Naeher] kind of fell and just played it right to me," an exuberant Riley said. "I didn’t know if I was out of bounds, so I thought, 'What the heck, I’ll just slot it across.' I think I almost fainted after that I was so tired, but it felt really good to put us back in the game."
Sinclair said that the goal was no accident. The Bay Area side had talked before the match about pressuring Naeher and managed to do so successfully.
"We decided before the game if we can press their goalkeeper when the ball’s coming back to her, we’ll do it," Sinclair, who tallied her eighth goal of the season, said. " Ali did that and did a tremendous job."
For Boston coach Tony DiCicco, though, the goal was inexcusable. Boston's less-experienced players let the side down, he said.
"We gifted a goal, and you can’t do that against the best team in the league," DiCicco said. " Some of the mistakes that we’re making, some of our young players really hurt us."
If the first Gold Pride goal, though, was the result of a forced error, the second was a stroke of pure genius. Just before the end of first-half extra time, Marta unleashed a strike for the ages. The Brazilian superstar, widely recognized as the world's best player, fired a shot that left Naeher sprawling and the Boston crowd in stunned silence. It was her 11th goal of the season.
"The keeper came out on the left hand side, and [I] tried to finish on the right hand side. [I] was lucky," the modest Brazilian said through an interpreter.
She was nothing of the sort. Marta picked up the ball from a flick by Sinclair and raced down the right wing before firing a laser that traveled across the face of goal, over a helpless Naeher and into the corner of the net behind the far post.
It was as fine a goal as any player anywhere has scored, and teammates and opponents alike expressed their admiration of it.
"Rachel [Buehler] played me the ball in the air, just a little flick and Marta’s going to outrun every person in this league, so she got on the end of it," Sinclair said.
"It’s so great to have someone who can counter attack like that against the run of play," Riley said of Marta. "She just fired it off I don’t know what surface of her foot, but what a great goal."
"Marta scored a great goal," said Lilly, the most-capped player in the history of soccer. "I think we were in OK position on the second goal. It was just a great finish and a great goal."
After Marta's sublime strike, the scoring was done, but the action continued. Boston's misses in the second half would define the game from the Breakers' perspective, but their failure to score wasn't for lack of trying.
All three of DiCicco's substitutions (Weimer, Cheney and Laura Del Rio) were forwards who replaced defenders or midfielders. By the 68th minute, when Weimer entered the match, Boston had no fewer than five attacking players on the pitch, with forwards Weimer, Del Rio and Cheney on along with attacking midfielders Lilly and Smith.
"They went to a three-back [formation], and we matched it with a three back," DiCicco explained. "When we started getting close [to scoring], they went back to a four back. It's a little bit of Russian roulette. [On a] narrow field, you can get away with it."
The Breakers did get away with it. Despite leaving some considerable holes at the back, they didn't concede again, thanks in large part to the industrious hustle of defender Ifeoma Dieke.
As much as the Breakers' wasted chances defined the match for them, Gold Pride showed resilience in not only coming from behind to win on the road but also in staving off attack after Boston attack in the second half.
"It was nice to be able to shut down a very dangerous team in that second half where it seemed like they had eight forwards playing," Sinclair said.
"It was very important to keep our composure," Marta added.
It didn't hurt, of course, that Gold Pride got a wonder goal from the best player in the world. With Marta on the pitch, opponents have to drive home every chance they get. The Breakers couldn't, and their punishment is a loss that dents their playoff chances and makes Sunday's game in Chicago a clash with immense playoff implications.
"We had the chances," Lilly, Boston's captain, said. "The chances you have, you've got to finish, and we didn't tonight."