After three months of play and a weekend of playoffs, the teams gunning for the W-League Championship have been winnowed down from 30 teams total to 11 that made the playoffs to the four that will compete this weekend for the title: the Quebec City Amiral, the Ottawa Fury, the DC United Women, and the Pali Blues. Here’s a closer look at the four teams:
Quebec City Amiral
Regular season record: 8-2-2, point percentage 0.72
Regular season placement: Second in Central Conference (treated as first due to Ottawa being seeded into Final Four as hosts)
Overall placement among all W-League teams: Eighth
How they got here: In Central Conference playoffs, defeated Hamilton FC Rage, 6-1, then Laval Comets 1-1 (5-4 PKs)
Players to watch: forwards Imen Trodi and Melissande Guy.
Trodi was the team’s leading scorer and was named to the all-league team. Guy played only 50 minutes during the regular season but came off the bench in the conference semifinal and scored a hat trick in her 34 minutes, then in the final scored the Chastain-style winning penalty kick to send the team to the Final Four.
There’s no way to put a nicer spin on it: this team hasn’t proven that it belongs here, neither compiling a top four record nor beating a top four team to get here. They’re only here at all because Ottawa got seeded in as the hosts, making them officially the top team in the weak Central Conference. Odds are they’re going to lose badly to a much more talented Pali Blues team.
Regular season record: 10-2-0, point percentage 0.83
Regular season placement: First in Central Conference
Overall placement among all W-League teams: Third
How they got here: Automatic seed as hosts
Players to watch: goalkeeper Jasmine Phillips, defender Kathryn Williamson, midfielders Katrina-Lee Gorry and Lisa-Marie Woods, forward Mallory Outerbridge.
Phillips put up six clean sheets this year. Williamson is part of a defense that gave up a mere eight goals on the season. Gorry is second on the team in shots. Norwegian international Woods didn’t join the team until mid-season but has scored five goals and two assists.
The organization is a national resource for Canadian soccer, with the same top-to-bottom development pyramid that the Washington Freedom once had: Super-Y, Super-20, and so on. Fourteen former players participated in last year’s Women’s World Cup. Their flagship team is their W-League team, which has been among the best in the league for most of the last ten years. Despite, that, though, they’ve never won a title:
2003 – Lost league semifinal to the Chicago Cobras
2004 – Lost league semifinal to the New Jersey Wildcats
2005 – Lost league final to the New Jersey Wildcats
2006 – Lost league final to the Vancouver Whitecaps
2007 – Lost Eastern Conference final to the Washington Freedom
2008 – Lost Central Conference final to FC Indiana
2009 – Lost league semifinal to the Washington Freedom Futures on penalty kicks
2010 – Lost Central Conference final to the Buffalo Flash
2011 – Lost league final to the Atlanta Silverbacks
You’d think they’d be pretty frustrated by now. Last year they seemed on course to win it all, with a star-spangled roster including league Most Valuable Player Mallory Outerbridge and Defender of the Year Amanda Fancher. They went 12-0-0 in the regular season and cruised into the final with most people expecting them to win easily. Instead, the unheralded Atlanta Silverbacks crushed them, 6-1. Phillips, though, dismisses all that: “What happened in the past is in the past. We have taken our lessons from past mistakes, and shared them, which is all we can do.”
This year, with losses to Quebec City and Hamilton, they seem much more vulnerable. Outerbridge hasn’t been nearly the force she was, with four goals this year to seventeen last year. Still, they’re playing on their home turf, and that has to be an advantage. Perhaps they can milk it for their first-ever title.
DC United Women
Regular season record: 11-0-1, point percentage 0.94
Regular season placement: First in the Eastern Conference’s Atlantic Division and first overall in the conference
Overall placement among all W-League teams: Second
How they got here: In Eastern Conference playoffs, defeated Virginia Beach Piranhas, 3-0, then Charlotte Lady Eagles, 3-0
Players to watch: defender Molly Menchel; midfielders Holly King, Hayley Siegel, and Lianne Sanderson; forwards Mikaela Howell and Ashley Herndon.
This second-year team seems to be getting its act together at just the right time. For most of the regular season, the team would spend long periods of time struggling to score and then burst forth with two, three, or five goals in a handful of minutes. In last weekend’s playoffs, though, the team was patient and composed and methodically ticked in the goals. Fourth-ranked Charlotte looked impressive in dispatching the fifth-ranked Long Island Rough Riders, but they didn’t come close to threatening in their match with DC. To win, they’ll need to keep it going. Their opponents, meanwhile, will need to play strong, organized defense because just about anyone on the team can and has scored – an amazing total of 19 players have made it into the box score with goals or assists.
They may have an advantage of their own as they’ve voluntarily played some of the best teams in the country in exhibition matches: the WPSL-Elite regular-season champion Boston Breakers and Paul Riley’s SuperGroup.
Howell burst forth early in the season as the team’s leading goal-scorer with 9 but cooled off as the weather warmed up. She also leads the team in assists with 7. Meanwhile, Sanderson has stepped up recently, most notably chalking up 3 goals and an assist in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Herndon is a force all up and down the right flank, though her availability is in question as she’s currently in the national finals with her U-17 team (yes, she is that young, though it doesn’t show in her play). Menchel, meanwhile, was selected as the team’s most valuable player by the fans for her nonstop work up and down the left flank and her well-aimed corner kicks. Siegel scored two goals in the playoffs directly off of set pieces and sends in deadly through balls. King is unlikely to figure in the scoring, but she stifles attacks and maintains possession in the midfield with aplomb.
Will they duplicate what the Silverbacks did last year, upsetting a star-studded side with determination and teamwork? I wouldn’t put it past them.
Regular season record: 13-0-1, point percentage 0.95
Regular season placement: First in Western Conference
Overall placement among all W-League teams: First
How they got here: In Western Conference playoffs, defeated the Seattle Sounders Women, 1-0.
Players to watch: goalkeeper Anna Maria Picarelli; defenders Sasha Andrews and Michelle Pao; midfielder Sarah Huffman; forward Lynn Williams.
The Pali Blues – the only team among these to have won a championship already – burst on the scene in 2008 with a flawless record on the way to a W-League championship in their rookie season. They took it all again the next year and in fact didn’t lose a match until 2010, when they fell on hard times, losing in the playoffs that year and not making the playoffs at all in 2011. Their list of former players reads like a who’s who of young soccer stars: Karen Bardsley, Lauren Cheney, Ashlyn Harris, Tobin Heath, Amy LePeilbet, Alex Morgan, Kelley O’Hara, and Ali Riley, just to name a few. This year’s crop isn’t quite as spectacular as some past years, but is still pretty impressive.
Italian national team goalkeeper Picarelli anchors the defense, though she only needed to make 53 saves all season and just 3 in the playoff match. She’s had 11 clean sheets in the regular season and added another in their one playoff match so far. Andrews and Pao head up what is by far the stingiest defense in the W-League, having given up a mere 3 goals in their 14 regular-season matches and 1 playoff game so far. Everyone else has given up at least 8. Former WPS Washington Freedom player and sometime national teamer Huffman can score (3 goals) but mostly makes plays, leading the team with 6 assists. Williams is the team’s leading scorer with 10 goals and 3 assists. (And in the Western Conference championship, appropriately, Williams scored the team’s lone, game-winning goal directly off a Huffman corner kick.) And those are just the players who have received postseason honors. Other “names” on their roster include Whitney Engen (possibly the best US defender not on the national team), Cami Levin (the #4 pick in this year’s WPS draft), and former WPSers Liz Bogus, Christie Shaner, and Nikki Washington.
Will Pali return to form and win their third championship? That’s not a given, but with Charlie Naimo – one of the best women’s club coaches in the history of the game – back on the bench for them, it’s got to be the way to bet.
Friday, July 27, 4 pm ET: Pali Blues vs. Quebec City Amiral
Friday, July 27, 7:30 pm ET: DC United Women vs. Ottawa Fury
Sunday, July 29, 4 pm ET: Winner of semifinal #1 vs. winner of semifinal #2
All three games will be webcast at http://www.USLNation.com/
Semifinal #1: Pali Blues 4, Quebec City Amiral 0. The Amiral will be thoroughly overmatched all over the field.
Semifinal #2: DC United Women 3, Ottawa Fury 1. Even though the Fury are playing on their home territory, DC is working well together and peaking at the right time. They’ll pull out a victory.
Final: Pali Blues 2, DC United Women 1. It’ll be a tight, hard-fought, well-played match, but the Blues have the stronger roster overall and – helped by an easy first-round match – will find a way to win their third W-League championship.