FC Gold Pride have done it. After three straight weeks of no production, the Lionesses of the East Bay flip the switch to "ON" and roll towards the top spot in the 2010 Women's Professional Soccer Power Rankings this week.
So now it becomes a race for the other three playoff spots. With just a few games remaining in the season, it's time to take a look at the rankings.
1. FC GOLD PRIDE
Albertin Montoya's FC Gold Pride are now at the top of the mountain in the regular season.
After three weeks of scoreless draws, they mustered up the firepower against the Chicago Red Stars at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, Illinois and won 3-2 behind their trigger player, the world-famous Marta Vieira da Silva.
In the eighth minute, Ali Riley on the left flank found a streaking Marta, who put in a clinical finish for her 14th of the season to make it 1-0 on Sunday.
In the 33rd minute, Rachel Buehler opened her scoring account with a sensational corner from Tiffeny Milbrett to make it 2-1.
Late in the second half, a handball by Chicago's Natalie Spilger forced referee Michael Donovan to point to the spot. It was Marta who slotted home her 15th of the season to make it 3-2.
“I’m very, very happy,” Marta said after the match. “Winning the regular season title is great, but winning the WPS Championship is very important. We achieved a lot, but there is more work to be done to prepare for the Championship.”
The Lionesses of the East Bay outshot Chicago 17 to 11 (with nine shots on goal compared to six for Chicago), and not even 15 fouls by the home side compared to six could stop Gold Pride from making up for their inept play as of late. Never mind that the Pride ran the Red Stars out of the stadium in the corner kicks department, earning nine compared to Chicago's two.
For Montoya, it was the fruit of a huge turnaround from an abysmal first season.
This is very exciting,” Montoya said following the game. “We went from finishing at the bottom last season to being on top, so we are ecstatic. Coming back strong in our second season and finishing in first means a lot to the entire organization.
"I want the team to really enjoy this moment because they earned it, but we also need to keep in the back of our minds what happened to last year’s regular season championship team [Los Angeles Sol] in the finals.”
The final regular-season matches in the month of September will now be a preview of what's to come on September 26 at Pioneer Stadium on the campus of California State University East Bay in Hayward.
“I think we have an excellent schedule to close out the regular season,” Montoya remarked. “We’re going into the postseason playing against a few of the best teams in the league in Boston and Philadelphia. I think we’ll be more relaxed now that the pressure is off and we can play the way we really know how to.”
But first, there is the matter of perhaps reading the last rites of another team's playoff chances. On August 28, FC Gold Pride travels to Kennesaw, Georgia, and the Beat/KSU Stadium to take on the Atlanta Beat. Kickoff is scheduled for 7:00 p.m. ET.
2. WASHINGTON FREEDOM
Jim Gabarra's Washington Freedom are turning skeptics into believers once again.
On Thursday, at the Maryland SoccerPlex in Germantown, Maryland, the Freedom notched a crucial 2-0 shutout victory over the Chicago Red Stars.
"Tonight was a huge win for us," said Freedom striker Abby Wambach after the match. "You always want to be peaking towards the end of the season, but you have to make the playoffs in order to make the actual peak worth it.
"This season isn't over by any means and you have to play well for the next couple of games in order to get into the playoffs. I feel good about the rest of our season."
As she should.
Wambach earned her 10th goal of the season off the service from Sarah Huffman in the 49th minute to make it 1-0 Washington. Cat Whitehill opened her scoring account with a header off a Huffman corner to make it 2-0 Freedom.
Defensively, Washington goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris was clutch, making fives saves to preserve the clean sheet.
"Every time I step on the field, it's business," said Harris. "It was a huge game for us. We are battling for fourth place, and to not give up any goals is big for our defensive unit. It is a confidence builder."
"First of all, Chicago was clearly the better team in the first half...We managed to survive the first half," Gabarra remarked after the match. "We asked them to battle harder and string some passes together. The first half was pretty ugly, but we held strong and didn't bend.
"Home field is important in any sport, and knowing you have two of the last three games at home here is a huge thing."
One thing that Gabarra will need to address is the chippiness. In spite of not earning any cards, the Freedom amassed 11 fouls. Clean play and soundless execution will be critical to their fortunes against defending WPS Champions Sky Blue FC. A win here will put them in the driver's seat for the fourth spot in the playoffs, if not one berth better. Can they do it?
Kickoff at the Maryland SoccerPlex is scheduled for Saturday, August 28 at 7:00 p.m. ET.
3. PHILADELPHIA INDEPENDENCE
Paul Riley's Philadelphia Independence will have to stick to holding off Boston and Washington for the second seed in the 2010 WPS Playoffs.
That's because the Indies were shut out on Sunday by Sky Blue FC 1-0 at Joe Yurcak Field on the campus of Rutgers University in Piscataway, New Jersey.
"We’re disappointed that we weren’t able to capture a win on the road tonight," said Independence general manager Louise Waxler on the defeat. "We are still looking to secure a playoff berth, and we have full confidence that the Independence has what it takes to move forward and earn a spot in the postseason race for the title."
Philadelphia had 10 shots against Sky Blue, but seven of those missed the mark in a sloppily-played contest marred by heavy rain.
Next Sunday, the Independence play their home finale against the Boston Breakers at John A. Farrell Stadium on the campus of the University of West Chester in West Chester, Pennsylvania. Kickoff is scheduled for August 29 at 6:00 p.m. ET.
4. BOSTON BREAKERS
Tony DiCicco's Boston Breakers ought to be kicking themselves for rallying too little, too late. Rallying from one goal is a pain, rallying from two is bad enough, but unless your opposition play like a team of mummies (and this desperate Atlanta Beat side were no mummies), rallying from three goals up is near-impossible.
At Veterans' Memorial Stadium, the Breakers paid the price for missing the boat, losing 3-2.
Once they got a goal, it gave them a lot of confidence," DiCicco said after the match. "But, we never gave up."
In the 87th minute, Lindsay Tarpley earned her third goal of the season off the initial miss by Laura Del Rio. Deep into stoppage time, Kristine Lilly earned her second of the season off a botched save attempt by Hope Solo to make it 3-2, but time ran out shortly thereafter.
Boston outshot Atlanta 10 to nine, with eight shots on goal. The Breakers also won eight corners, compared to Atlanta's seven.
In the end, it seems Atlanta goalkeeper Hope Solo got her personal act of revenge on what she accused to be unsavory behavior on the part of the Boston supporters earlier this month. Served them right, apparently.
Ah, nothing more true than these two words: Football Hurts.
Next up for the Breakers is a trip to West Chester to take on the Philadelphia Independence. Kickoff is scheduled for August 29 at 6:00 p.m. ET and will be televised by Fox Soccer Channel.
5. SKY BLUE FC
Rick Stainton's defending WPS Champions Sky Blue FC have a pulse. It throbbed in the form of Yael Averbuch, who opened her account in the 68th minute through Heather O'Reilly to give Sky Blue FC a 1-0 victory over the Philadelphia Independence.
"I am very proud of the performance that our team gave tonight," Sky Blue FC head coach Rick Stainton said. "We were able to apply all of the components that we have been developing at training into the game, particularly our ability to maintain possession and build our attack in numbers.
"We proved to ourselves tonight that we can capitalize on teams regardless of who they are. Philadelphia is a very good team in this league, and we had yet to have any success against them until tonight.
"To be able to correct our mistakes and accomplish that at this point in the season should be a nice building block for us as we fight for a playoff berth."
However, their victory came with a price.
In the 15th minute, Laura Kalmari suffered a gash on her shin from a ball challenge. After treatment, she would be on the bench for the remainder of the game.
Nonetheless, the possibility that Sky Blue FC's leading goal scorer could be out at a time the club needs her services means that in order to push the Freedom for the fourth spot, they will have to look at other options.
On Saturday at the Maryland SoccerPlex in Germantown, the Ladies of the Raritan get a chance to see if those options can give them a chance to defend at the dance. Kickoff is scheduled for August 28 at 7:00 p.m. ET.
6. ATLANTA BEAT
The hopes of the Atlanta Beat to press for a postseason berth are alive...for at least another week.
However, it began with a change.
On Tuesday, August 17, manager Gareth O'Sullivan and assistant coach Robbie Nicholson were sacked. Australian James Galanis took over managerial duties in a caretaker role.
The question now for Atlanta was whether or not a different drum would be one its players could sing to the Beat of.
On Saturday, August 21, Atlanta got their answer as they took on the Boston Breakers at Veterans Memorial Stadium in New Britain, Connecticut. Apparently they found the turf more advantageous than the home side, holding off a late Breakers rally to win 3-2.
"I think it was a classic performance. We knew what we needed to do today. We have a new coach that has very high expectations for us and we came out here and did what we had to do," said Beat forward Eniola Aluko after the match. "It was disappointing to give up the last two goals, but we came out with a win."
In the 11th minute of play, Lori Chalupny blazed down the left side and eluded Breakers defender Kasey Moore for her third of the season, giving Atlanta a 1-0 lead.
In the 66th minute, Aluko earned her eighth goal of the season with a touch off the initial volley from Mami Yamaguchi to make it 2-0 Beat.
Aluko earned her ninth of the season off the delivery by Angie Kerr to make it 3-0 Atlanta. Then goalkeeper Hope Solo braved a last-second assault from the Breakers attack, making six saves to preserve the victory.
It will be interesting to see if Galanis can right this ship before it's too late. They could be hitting an iceberg in the form of WPS regular-season champions FC Gold Pride on Saturday, August 28. Can they steer clear of it?
Kickoff at the Atlanta Beat/KSU Stadium is scheduled for 7:00 p.m. ET.
7. CHICAGO RED STARS
It's a safe bet to say that Omid Namazi's Chicago Red Stars are not going to see any postseason action. A tumultuous year that saw embattled manager Emma Hayes sacked in favor of Namazi has resulted in a second-straight season without a WPS playoffs appearance.
And it all came to a hilt in a miserable weekend of football for the women of the Windy City.
On Wednesday, the Red Stars traveled to the Maryland SoccerPlex to take on the Washington Freedom. They won the set piece battle, with seven corners compared to the Freedom's three, but the savvy of Washington goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris combined with a lack of execution killed Chicago's chances of making any sort of an impact, losing 2-0.
But it was FC Gold Pride's Marta Vieira da Silva who would read the last rites on Sunday at Toyota Park, breaking Red Stars hearts late in the second half to lose 3-2 and be eliminated from the playoff picture.
Ella Masar was valiant in Chicago's defeat, scoring a brace. In the seventh minute, a delivery from Cristiane saw Masar jar the ball loose from the reach of FC Gold Pride goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart to make it 1-1.
In the 61st minute, Marian Dalmy's service found an unmarked Masar to make the score 2-2. However, a handball by Natalie Spilger forced a penalty kick that would sink the Red Stars' season.
Masar has eight goals this year for Chicago, a team record. But a consolation prize is just that—a consolation prize, and for Namazi's Red Stars, this was a quintessential example.
The next two matches for Chicago will be focus on setting the agenda for next season and maybe play spoiler for a team or two. On Wednesday, September 1, they will play host to the Philadelphia Independence. Kickoff is at 8:00 p.m. ET. The Red Stars will close their 2010 season with a September 5 contest against the Washington Freedom. Kickoff is scheduled for 6:00 p.m. ET and will be televised by Fox Soccer Channel.