Heather O’Reilly scored the lone goal in the WPS championship game. (Andy Mead/YCJ Photo)
This story was written by Dan Lauletta for BigAppleSoccer.com on Aug. 22, 2009. NJ/NY Gotham FC, which will face the Portland Thorns in the NWSL Challenge Cup final, won its only Women’s Professional Soccer title.
By Dan Lauletta
While New Jersey braced for the remnants of Hurricane Bill, the sky was blue at The Home Depot Center on Saturday where Sky Blue FC clinched a championship for the area with a 1-0 upset of the favored Los Angeles Sol in the WPS Championship match.
Two weeks after pulling hard for the Sol to defeat the Breakers to allow Sky Blue FC into the playoffs, Christie Rampone’s side made the Sol pay for its generosity.
Heather O’Reilly scored the only goal of the match in the 16th minute, and soon after that the Sol were reduced to 10 players. Still, the regular season champions regrouped and dominated the second half, coming up with everything but the all-important equalizer.
“I think we struggled a little bit in the second half, but we still had the heart and desire to try to fight them off to get that victory,” player/interim coach Christie Rampone said.
The win capped an amazing playoff run. Sky Blue finished in fourth place and became the post-season as the fourth-seed, winning all three of its playoff matches on the road.
The second half was filled with Sol chances and several exquisite defensive plays by Sky Blue. The best of the bunch was a slide tackle in the penalty area by Heather O’Reilly, who was named the game’s Most Valuable Player, Aya Miyama.
O’Reilly said Miyama is “a sneaky player and she slipped right behind me. I know that as an outside midfielder, that’s my mark.”
The 7,218 spectators —- most pulling for the hometown Sol —- prepared themselves to celebrate an O’Reilly send off, but referee Kari Seitz held her whistle.
“I did get the ball, but that’s a scary play especially with what happened early in the game,” O’Reilly said, referencing the red card handed out to defender Allison Falk.
That play developed in the 27th minute when Natasha Kai made a long run on the ball that ended when Falk nudged her to the ground from behind. Asked after the match by a pool reporter, Seitz said that Falk was the last defender and that she denied Kai an obvious goal-scoring opportunity. Replays appeared to show that Stephanie Cox was at least on an even line with Falk.
“I didn’t feel it was a red card. I thought it was a poor decision,” Sol coach Abner Rogers said. “Stephanie Cox was a recovering player so [Falk] wasn’t the last defender. And it wasn’t a blatant tackle.”
The Sol rarely played like the team missing a player. During one sequence in the second half Rampone’s three defense partners — Keeley Dowling, Jen Buczkowski and Meghan Schnur —- made sensational plays during a two-minute Sol siege that mostly involved Miyama and Marta.
“They did a great job,” Rampone said of the backline. “They did a good job of being mindful of where [Marta] was and dropping when they needed to and stepping when we needed to.”
The much-maligned Jenni Branam had another strong match, racing off her line to put out several fires and falling on a Shannon Boxx pass in the last moment before Lyndsey Patterson could slot home the equalizer in the 85th minute. That turned out to be the final, truly dangerous chance of the game.
“She basically won a lot of these games for us,” Rampone said after calling Branam amazing.
Rampone is 4-1 as head coach of Sky Blue, but joked that she is retiring from that role at least until her playing career is over. That means Sky Blue will have a new head coach when it reconvenes next Spring to defend its championship.