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ON SOCCER

In women's soccer championship, it's anybody's game

The Los Angeles Sol has the best record, the league's No.1 goalkeeper and home-field advantage, but New Jersey's Sky Blue has momentum and nothing to lose.

August 22, 2009|Grahame L. Jones

Logic says that the Sol should win today's Women's Professional Soccer championship game in Carson.

Instinct says it will be Sky Blue FC of New Jersey.

Logic says the Sol, which had the best record in WPS, the league's top goal scorer in Brazil's Marta, the league's No. 1 goalkeeper in Canada's Karina LeBlanc and is playing on its own Home Depot Center field, should prevail.

Instinct says Sky Blue, which finished fourth out of seven WPS teams, had a losing record, went through two coaching changes in five months and dealt with turmoil on and off the field, can win.

In other words, the 1 p.m. match is there for the taking. The inaugural WPS title could go to the team that seemed to have its name engraved on the trophy from the moment it signed Marta or it could go to the team that the Sol defeated twice and tied once during the regular season.

The Sol won the regular-season championship, going 12-3-5, to earn direct passage to the final.

Sky Blue finished the regular season with a 7-8-5 mark, barely squeaked into the playoffs by winning its final game and then won playoff games over the third-place Washington Freedom and second-place St. Louis Athletica, both on the road.

"I think they deserve to be in the final," said Sol Coach Abner Rogers. "They were the better team in both games."

LeBlanc, who led WPS with a 0.53 goals-against average and 12 shutouts, said Sky Blue "definitely have momentum right now . . . but I think we're well prepared. We know that we've been playing well all season. We're confident going into this game."

Marta, whose 10 goals led all WPS scorers, said Sky Blue has "very little to lose" in the final, having already proven itself in the playoffs.

"It's a team that was on the brink of elimination," she said. "But we have a lot of responsibility on our shoulders because we've been working towards the final from the beginning, and now it's in front of us."

Two factors come into play that neither team could control.

First, the Sol will be without the league's second-leading scorer, midfielder Camille Abily, because she is with France's national team competing in the European Women's Championship in Finland.

"Camille's a big loss," said Rogers. "She's been great for us all year. We've adapted. We've found a formation that works with the personality of the players that we have. We've trained as much as we can and we're ready."

Second, because it qualified directly for the final, the Sol has gone two weeks without a competitive game. Sky Blue, meanwhile, has been toughened by its two playoff matches. "You can look at it two ways," Rogers said. "If you get too much rest, you're not sharp. If you never get a break, you're going to be a little bit fatigued."

Sky Blue has Christie Rampone as player-coach. A starter on the U.S. women's national team that won Olympic gold in 2004 and 2008, Rampone was given the job less than a month ago. Under her, the team, which was in last place three months ago, has won four of five games.

"Rampone's a leader out there," Rogers said. The Sol coach is also concerned about two other U.S. national team players on Sky Blue's roster -- forward Natasha Kai and goalkeeper Jenni Branam.

"[Kai] can be so dangerous. She can turn the game instantly. They've been pretty solid at the back," Rogers said. "Branam's done an outstanding job. She's like a warrior out there. Every time I see her, she's making big saves, limping around, pulling herself back up and making another big save. It's amazing. They're going to be hard to break down."

But LeBlanc and Marta said the Sol was focused.

"This is the game you play for," LeBlanc said. "There's no other game that's more important. Winning the regular season for us was great, but this is what we've been looking forward to. This is it."

Added Marta: "I'm not thinking at all about a loss. I'm going for the win as hard as I can. It will not be a catastrophe if we lose. However, it would be perfect if we won."

--

grahame.jones@latimes.com

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