Los Angeles Sol v. Sky Blue FC - WPS Championship Preview

Okay, well, now Christine Rampone can pack her bags for Los Angeles.

It's going to be tempting, if and when New Jersey wins the WPS title, to roll one's eyes at a fourth place team wearing the crown. Well, it was good enough for the New York Giants a couple of years ago...and the parallels are getting a little frightening. Three road games to the title, final game against a prohibitive favorite....no, the Sol didn't go undefeated in the regular season like the New England Patriarchs*, but they beat everyone at least once and looked great doing it.

I also think that, as with the 2007-2008 Giants, the final game will be easier for the Champions of New Jersey than the semifinal. The Giants got a neutral site game, whereas the Sky have to play at the other teams' home...but it's not like the HDC is a cauldron for visiting WPS teams, and the turf is still suffering from its annual case of X-Games hangover.

There's a more practical reason to like Sky Blue now - check out the highlights of their semifinal.

You see a save like the one the Hopester made in minute four, and you naturally assume that God is on Athletica's side. But Sky Blue just kept exploiting the A's defense, something I didn't see happening, and Solo couldn't save them forever.

So now we have...well, not the matchup everyone wanted, or really anyone wanted outside of New Jersey, but still an intriguing final. Hot v. rested, coaching disarray v. steady leadership, W-League upstarts v. AEG marketing vehicle, hospital sponsor v. Amway, unknowns v. stars.

Let's look at the underdogs. Most of this information, if not all, comes from the WPS site. (Or would have, if it didn't crash in the middle of me writing this post. Guys, if plagiarism was supposed to be hard, I wouldn't do it.)

Jenni Branam, GK: that rarest of women soccer players, the former UNC Tarheel. Helped defensive-minded Blues keep opponents just an eyelash over a goal a game. Former San Diego Spirit keeper from WUSA. Former Damallsvenskan keeper, so knows from Marta. Never quite cracked the USWNT, although if she throws a shutout tomorrow, who knows.
Keeley Dowling, D: Goalscoring hero in the semifinal, yet another borderline national teamer who is getting another chance at the spotlight. Had three assists in the regular year. Goes forward a lot. But if she's spending as much time in the offensive part of the field against Los Angeles, then the Sol are stinking it up. Member of the U-21 2002 champs.
Jen Buczkowski, D: Rampone put her in to replace Anita Asante, who's off being English. Not going to make too many mistakes on her own, but can't spend the afternoon looking at the back of Marta's Pumas, either. From Chicago, as the amazingly Polish name might have suggested.
Christie Rampone, D: Never what you would call a star on the national team, now grown into the role of veteran leader - even before turning into John Freaking Wooden as of a week ago. Played in WUSA for the horrible New York Power, but has played in an important game or two for her country, so that inexperience shouldn't hurt her. Your almost certain MVP if Sky Blue lifts the trophy.
Meghan Schnur, D: Former New England Mutiny player a decade younger than Rampone. Like Bucskowski, listed as a midfielder. Rampone does like sending defenders forward, herself excepted, but I gotta think she will stay home a little more against Marta. Describes herself as "driven," backed it up by being the only Sky Blue to start every game.
Kacey White, M: That rarest of women players, the former UNC Tarheel. Championships are built with borderline national teamers, and White is a sterling example. Three goals and no assists in the regular season not so sterling. But she was helping make the A's defense look very ordinary Wednesday, so we'll see what she does under pressure.
Yael Averbuch, M: That rarest of women players, the former UNC Tarheel. Scored the fastest goal in college history. Has scored zero goals in WPS this year. Now I see why Rampone has been sending defenders forward all the time. Nice assist on the winning goal against the A's, but Dowling was as unmarked as a bill in a bank job.
Collette McCallum, M: Young Australian star who I thought was going to make a bigger splash. Had three assists in the regular season, but everyone had three assists in the WPS regular season. Won all the time with the Pali Blues, lost a lot of the time with Perth Glory. Overdue to break out of a slump, in other words.
Heather O'Reilly, M: That rarest of women players, the former UNC Tarheel. Should she be a bigger star than she is? Someone's cybersquatted heatheroreilly.com, after all. (Her real site is oreillysoccer.com. Her nickname, to my knowledge, is not "The Factor." WPS All-Star, although that and five dollars will get you a picture of Abraham Lincoln.
Rosana, F: The second most famous Brazilian in the championship game, which is sort of like being the person who wore #23 on the Bulls before Michael Jordan.** Second on the team in goals behind Kai, with five. If there's an early goal for New Jersey, Rosana will probably get it.
Kerri Hanks, F: Two-time, two-time Hermann Award winner, who may be a little sick of seeing all these damn Tar Heels. Hope Solo had one of the saves of the new millennium in the semifinal game against her. Still, she got over on her old team. Rampone will probably start her in front of Kai, on the theory that you don't mess with a winning lineup.
Natasha Kai, supersub: Dunno how Kai feels about coming off the bench, but it's worked so far. More ink than the New York Times. The Ole Gunnar Solskjaer of WPS, at least in the playoffs. Bench play importance is magnified in finals, and absolutely no one will be surprised if Kai or Francielle once again leave the pine and dent the twine.

When last we saw the Los Angeles Sol, they were posing happily with the Regular Season Trophy. It actually said that on the trophy itself. Apparently none of the WPS executives were arrogant enough to name it after themselves. Or foolish enough, since if it ends up like the NHL's Presidents Trophy, it might as well be engraved "Titanic" and shaped like an anchor.

Before that, we saw the Sol being hissed out of town by the Boston Breakers, whose season they ruined not at all on the strength of a late penalty call, but try telling them that. About as impressive in the last month of the season as a bowl of Cheerios on "Iron Chef," the Sol will be without Camille Abily, but with a whole lot of expectations. Let's see who will start for the Big Hot Thing in the Sky:

Karina LeBlanc, GK: Best in the league. Has more shutouts than the Jehovah's Witnesses.*** Big Michael Jackson fan. Don't be misled by her non-existent national team form.
Keri Sanchez, D: What do you know, a North Carolina Tarheel. Sanchez is the oldest player on the team, at 36 - won a title with the CyberRays, and she was a veteran then. Her secret identity is coach of the Claremont McKenna women's soccer team. Started after Martina Franko got herself pregnified.
Allison Falk, D: Scored the first WPS goal ever etc. etc. Twenty-two years old out of Stanford, if WPS had rookies of the year they'd have to...well, the rules for that award would be totally messed up, so it's a good thing they don't. She's going to want to watch what the Athletica did against the Sky Blue offense, and do the opposite.
Brittany Bock, D: Boy, the Sol are young. Another twenty-two year old, and usually you don't want a whole lot of youth in the back line. A teammate of Kerri Hanks at Notre Dame, although this year you apparently didn't have to know much of Hanks' moves in order to stop her. Bock can play any position but goalkeeper, but she really ought to consider playing defense tomorrow.
Stephanie Cox, D: The US national team played a game, and didn't call her up! What the hell am I missing? She's been the unsung hero on a team that unfortunately prefers its heroes nice and musical. Don't know who will score for New Jersey, but it won't be her mark.
Manya Makoski, M: Makes Stephanie Cox look like Mia Hamm. All she does is her job, week in and week out.
Shannon Boxx, M: Despite being a former San Diego Spirit, has managed to play in important games at certain points in her career.
Aya Miyama, M: Played every minute of every game. Tireless, fearless, great vision. A big part of Marta's success. Absolutely no shot threat whatsoever, though. Championship games being strange affairs, she'll probably get a hat trick.
Aly Wagner, M: Hurt all the damn time.
Han Duan, F: The second worst shot on the team, after Miyama. Has none of Miyama's virtues, though, except hard work. Well, she makes missing look hard. Gets the start by default since Abily is off being French, and Jesus, are the Sol going to miss her. Duan is the heir to Sun Wen on the Steel Roses, and not entirely coincidentially, China's been godawful since then. Tries her best, though - it's tough to hate her. She's going to have to raise her game substantially, otherwise Marta really will have to win this game singlehandedly.
Marta, F: She's all right, I guess.

Off the bench, the best story is former developmental player McCall Zerboni. Seriously, it's not just the Sky Blue that has a bunch of players with big hearts and white-hot commitment and love for the game. It's just that the Sol's starters have been better. Zerboni is a joy to watch. Um, not a heck of a lot else on the bench for Team Sunshine.

Well, let's see if I can't make a prediction.

I think the Sol can hold possession, and that maybe will be good enough to overcome Abily's absense. What can't happen is a whole ton of bad passes to a triple-teamed Marta, or a whole lot of Han Duan shots turning into goal kicks.

Besides, while Rampone is getting all the leadership points, it's not like Abner Rogers is an idiot, and Shannon Boxx certainly isn't. If Boxx is on top of the game, when the Sky Blue defenders go forward, a quick turnover will send the Sol screaming towards Branam with a two-player advantage. Then either Marta will put it in the net, or Han will put it in Row 24.

And I realize Sky Blue solved Hope Solo, Cat Whitehill, Heather Mitts, Tina Ellertson, and a host of your favorite stars - but I think the Sol defense holds out. Sol, 2-0. Garbage goal by Bock or someone like her early; finisher in the middle of the second half by Marta on a breakaway.

*I don't know why I call them that.
**Mike Bratz. There's no reason you should know this. I thought it was Reggie Theus at first, so I'm glad I looked it up.
***You see, they go door-to-door on evangelist missions, and anyone going door-to-door is going to get their share of doors slammed in their face. Too much of a reach?