MEXICO CITY (AP) – After what we in the United States have witnessed throughout the past couple of months, anyone with a complaint about women's soccer is completely off base. Of course, the FIFA Women's World Cup was well documented for its drama-filled, exhilarating tournament (especially for runner-up United States). And this weekend, at club level in Women's Professional Soccer, after an exciting postseason, the WPS season ended with a thrilling championship.
For the second consecutive year, an expansion club made the championship. Western New York Flash entered the league in 2011, taking many of the 2010 champion FC Gold Pride with them after the Pride folded after last season. From the jump, they were a favorite to make it deep into the playoffs. On the other side of the pitch was last year's runner up (the expansion finalist from 2010) the Philadelphia Independence.
WNY (13-2-3, 42 pts) got to the final after topping the table in the regular season, hosting the match in front of 10,461 - a WPS Championship record, surpassing the 7,000-plus from the inaugural season - at Sahlen's Stadium in Rochester, N.Y. Philadelphia (11-4-3, 36 pts) finished second in WPS, topping magicJack 2-0 in the WPS Super Semifinal in Pennsylvania last week to reach the championship.
In a quasi-rematch of last year's final, where Gold Pride trumped Philly 4-0, the former Pride champions Marta, Christine Sinclair, Ali Riley, Kandace Wilson, Candace Chapman, Brittany Cameron and Becky Edwards had a more stressful day going for a second straight title. That could be thanks to the former Pride champion keeper Nicole Barnhart, who was on the other side of the pitch stopping Flash shots (four to be exact).
It was a hard-fought battle with a total of five cautions, including an ejection (Beverly Goebel, WNY), and 90 minutes couldn't decide it. Sinclair beat her former mate with a goal in the 64th minute to put the Flash on top (assisted by Chapman). WNY seemed destined for a regular-time win, but in the 88th minute, Amy Rodriguez - who got out of a goal-scoring funk last week against magicJack - evened the contest with an unassisted goal.
"We created enough chances to win the game and we showed our character by dragging ourselves back into the game," said Independence head coach, Paul Riley.
Most of the physical play encountered after the game was equalized by Rodriguez. After full time, the match extended another 30 minutes with neither side creating an edge, sending the championship into penalties. Barnhart was on the Philly side, with her U.S. international experience, against Ashlyn Harris, an up-and-coming keeper without a lengthy track record. If there was an edge, it was in Philly's favor. However, that's why they play the matches.
For the Flash, no one missed a shot - leaving the thought that the former Pride players knew what Barnhart would be doing in the nets. Marta, Sinclair, McCall Zerboni, Caroline Seger and Yael Averbuch all found the back of the net. Meanwhile, Philly was matching the Flash as the second takers in each round. Lianne Sanderson, Danesha Adams, Leigh Ann Robinson and WPS MVP Veronica Boquete all scored, leaving it up to Laura Del Rio to keep the contest going after Averbuch put the Flash up 5-4 in the PKs. Harris, however, made the diving stop to give the expansion club a title.
The drama that unfolded has surely solidified the women's game as far as an on-field product. At this juncture, heading into a third offseason, with a lot at stake and questions whether the league will be viable for a return for a fourth season in 2012, the upper management will need to step up to get more butts in the seats. After the World Cup, there was a lot of attention. The play hasn't hurt it; they just need to keep that good vibe marinating in the minds of people for the several months away from the pitch. Whatever it takes.
Should there be a fourth season, there are many questions to be answered. Will Philly make a third run to the WPS Championship? Will another club come from nowhere to play for a title? Can the Atlanta Beat threaten the rest of the league? Is Boquete becoming a world-class star before our eyes? Will Marta win another Gold Boot? And many more. Certainly the product is great. Hopefully we all get to see it again in 2012.