WPS Championship Preview: Sky Blue FC Play Cinderella

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The LA Sol were always supposed to be there. Featuring the world’s best female player, Marta, and playing at the best venue in the league, the Home Depot Center, they dominated the WPS regular season, losing only once before they clinched a place in the playoffs as early as June 27th. By July 26th, they’d also clinched the regular season title and the right to go straight to the final that they’ll host in Los Angeles this Saturday.

They weren’t supposed to be playing Sky Blue FC, though. In May, only seven games into their season, the team fired general manager and coach Ian Sawyers after disputes with team ownership became apparently untenable. Assistant coach Kelly Lindsey stepped into the head coach role.

Just six weeks later, Lindsey (along with Assistant head coach Joe Dorini) herself mysteriously resigned in what appears to have been a continuation of coaching staff/ownership disagreements, even though the club had remained in playoff contention throughout her time in charge.

Lindsey responded angrily to comments criticising her by Sky Blue’s ownership after her resignation, writing an email to ESPN defending herself:

I am disappointed by what has been said in the press, and that Sky Blue has decided to challenge my abilities. I will not do the same instead I will share my views with the ownership group privately. I will let my record as a head coach speak for itself. At this time, as to why I left, especially when the team was on the verge of securing a playoff bid, I point to the public comments made by Sky Blue as an example of the behavior I do not wish to be a part of any longer.

Christie Rampone

Christie Rampone

At that point Sky Blue FC sat fifth in the standings, with the top four qualifying for the playoffs. U.S. National Team veteran Christie Rampone took over as Interim Player/Coach.  A rookie head coach, Sky Blue’s third of the season, hardly seemed like a recipe for a championship run.

But they stayed in contention, and qualified on the last weekend of the season despite losing 3-1 to the Washington Freedom, ironically thanks to the LA Sol’s 2-1 victory over the Boston Breakers, who would have taken Sky Blue’s spot had they beaten LA.

And this week, two wins in the playoffs away from home against the Washington Freedom and St. Louis Athletica have propelled Sky Blue to within 90 minutes of one of the most unlikely championship wins in American professional soccer history.

Some are unhappy with the playoff format that has even given Sky Blue this opportunity to snatch the title at the Home Depot Center — in just a 20 game season, they finished 15 points behind the LA Sol in the regular season. The Women’s Sports Blog writes that:

On the one hand, Sky Blue FC have a lot of pride to play for and no doubt a monkey off their backs with a popular player as coach.  On the other, they’re just demonstrably worse than both teams they’ve beaten to reach the finals.  Does an inspiring story trump the ability of the playoffs to determine who deserves the trophy?

But it should be noted that WPS’ playoff format was designed to better reward regular season play than its MLS counterpart, and their road there this week reflects that. After all, all the Sol have to do is win one game at home in the playoffs to clinch the championship, having had plenty of rest. Sky Blue FC have been given a tough enough path in the playoffs, needing to win three successive road games in just one week to win out. Should they do it, it would be hard to begrudge an amazing turnaround.

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