After magicJack topped the Boston Breakers (2-0, Saturday night), all Sky Blue FC had to do on Sunday night's Women's Professional Soccer Game of the Week to earn a playoff berth was finish the match at Philadelphia in a draw.
Even though the Independence had already clinched a spot in the postseason, when Western New York topped Atlanta (2-0, Saturday night), they knew they needed a win to keep pace and have a shot at a regular season championship.
It was a thrilling contest throughout, and the 3,615 in attendance at Widener University in Chester, Penn., got to see their home Independence (11-3-3, 36 pts) come away with a 2-1 win on a last-minute goal by
Lianne Sanderson, pulling into a first-place tie with WNY with one game to play (WNY has a game in hand).
Sky Blue (5-8-4, 19 pts) was behind the eight ball most of the match. Seventeen minutes in, they fell behind 1-0 courtesy of a Tasha Kai goal that beat Jenni Branam to the far post from 20 yards out. Leigh Ann Robinson sent in a lofted long ball that Kai sprinted onto, beating the entire Sky Blue backline.
After lining up the bouncing ball, Kai buried it with her right foot for her ninth of the year, breaking a 384-minute scoreless drought. It was also Philly's first opening half goal in four matches.
Tobin Heath got a spot in the starting XI for coach Jim Gabarra, who had been using Heath as a reserve for the better part of the season. In the 24th minute, Heath set up Eniola Aluko for the equalizer. Heath sprinted
with the ball up the center of the pitch and fed the England international with a perfectly-placed chip in behind the Independence defense. Aluko lined up her shot and with one touch, beat keeper Nicole Barnhart to the far post.
But things changed in the 49th minute when Carrie Dew was booked for the second time in the match, resulting in a red card, and the do-or-die game in the regular season finale against playoff hopeful Boston (4-9-4, 16 pts).
With one week to go in the WPS regular season, the only playoff spot available is fourth place. Sky Blue currently holds that spot, but if they hope to book a trip to Boca Raton, Fla., for the WPS playoffs first round against magicJack, they'll need to get at least a point on the road next Sunday.
From the jump, Philadelphia controlled the match. Veronica Boquete had the first chance of the match in the second minute, Dew pulled down Kai getting her first card of the game. On the free kick Boquete ripped a shot that Branam made a leaping stop, parrying the ball over the bar and for a corner. It was a sign of things to come on the night.
Philadelphia continued its onslaught in the eighth minute when Kia McNeill missed an opportunity with Branam off her line and out of position; Dew headed the ball to safety; two minutes later Kai got a diagonal ball from Danesha Adams but was wrestled off the ball by the Sky Blue defense; and two minutes after that Kai fed Adams, but her shot was deflected out.
After the goals were scored, Branam kept the game even with another great save on Boquete in the 35th. Kai got behind a long ball and headed it back to Boquete who rifled a shot for the far post. Branam laid out and batted the ball down, denying the Spain international.
Sky Blue had one of its few chances to take a lead in the 43rd. Heather O'Reilly whipped a cross from the left flank that got past everyone to the far post. Defender Brittany Taylor, unmarked, got a free shot at a header, which she hit across the grain; however, her accuracy was a hair off, missing the frame.
After the two sides came out of the locker rooms for the second half, only Philadelphia came out with the urgency needed to win. Adams received the ball in the box in the 48th and only had to tap it past Branam for the lead, but the Independence midfielder was robbed.
A minute later, Dew was tossed from the match and Philly controlled throughout. If not for Branam, the match would have been out of reach. On the play, Adams was dribbling the ball forward and knocked the ball ahead of Dew as she went in for a challenge. The two got tangled up, with Adams falling to the ground. Surely, Dew's attempted tackle was a foul, but a card, hardly.
Adams came out strong in the second half and had another opportunity in the 54th minute. Kai fed Adams who took a touch forward, popping the ball up. When it returned down by her feet, Adams drilled a shot that beat Branam to the far post, but whistled wide.
Amy Rodriguez came into the match in the second half as a sub. Her struggles since the World Cup have been well documented. So much so that earlier in the week, coach Paul Riley stated U.S. women's national team coach Pia Sundhage, with the way she used the Independence striker, "her confidence has suffered greatly."
That may have been the case in the 67th minute when Rodriguez whipped a shot for the far post. Normally, the precision striker would have buried it in the side netting. On Sunday, with Rodriguez's luck, she nailed the woodwork, and the ball bounced right into the arms of a lying Branam.
Ten minutes later in the 77th minute, Rodriguez got free in the box and had a go, looking for the near post from about 15 yards out. Branam anticipated the shot, and dove to make the save, keeping Philly's striker in her slump. Rodriguez was the target of a Laura del Rio cross in the 81st minute, as well, but her lunging effort to tap the ball in at the six-yard box just missed the ball and rolled across the box and out of play.
Del Rio tried to take matters into her own hands in the 85th minute. Boquete found a streaking del Rio with a chip pass that del Rio chest trapped down to her feet. Branam raced off her line and del Rio attempted to nutmeg the keeper, but Branam managed to block the ball with her legs and the Sky Blue defense cleared it away from danger. Del Rio again raced into the box in the 90th minute and tried another meg, but Branam
denied her again.