LISLE, Ill. – Perspective, like beauty, is often in the eye of the beholder, so when suddenly red-hot Western New York ran its unbeaten streak in WPSL Elite to 11 with an impressive 2-1 road win over Chicago last Saturday night at Benedictine University, it shouldn’t have been all that surprising that the competing coaches had different takes on what the game meant as the season draws to a fairly abrupt close in the next couple of weeks.
The Flash – who early in the campaign looked the most likely of the “big four” teams to possibly drop into a playoff dogfight – now have a realistic, even good, shot of capturing the regular season title. They are tied atop the standings with Boston with one game to go, and host the Breakers on Sunday. A win will likely gave them the regular season crown (Chicago could then tie WNY with two wins this week, but the Flash hold the head-to-head tiebreaker, and – barring a hiding somewhere – should win on goal differential as well).
But what is that worth? Depends on who you talk to.
“We’d like to finish the season on a high,” Flash coach Aaran Lines said. “Boston will come in looking for a fight, they’re a great team. We’ve got eight days now to recover, which is huge.”
Chicago coach Rory Dames answered: “I don’t think it really matters where you end up 1 through 4. I think any of those teams are going to beat any other. It’s going to come down to that day and what goes on that day. Western New York will have a bit of an advantage because it’s at their field. But it’s 11 players versus 11 players. I don’t think dropping the points is an end all for us. It’s disappointing, we had a great crowd. We just need to be able to put the effort and commitment for 90 minutes the way we did in the second 45.
“Everywhere else in the world, (winning the regular season) is important. We said at the beginning of the season, we just have to be in the top four. We’re still an amateur team contrary to what everyone believes. We have players that have full-time jobs during the day. We have players that come in and out based on events and travel based on their work schedules.Our goal was always to get into the top four and give ourselves a chance at the end. We’re not Boston or Western New York who have their players all the time and train every day. It’s not where we’re at right now.”
As Dames alluded to, it was a great atmosphere. In what should be their regular home (the turf was getting replaced for most of the summer) going forward, there were probably more than 2,000 people in attendance (Chicago personnel said it was hard to get an exact number because there was a baseball game next door, and it was hard to know who was paying for what), and it was an end-to-end affair that features plenty of scoring chances and quality soccer from two of the best women’s teams that this country has to offer at the moment.
“We have good fans,” Dames said. “They enjoy coming out, I think, because we try to play and we’re exciting, regardless if we win or lose.”
It was my first time seeing the Red Stars this season (making them the eighth and final team, which should win me something, no?), and I was impressed by their workrate. Coming out of a diamond 4-4-2 with Lori Chalupny high, Jen Buczkowksi sitting deeper, and Alyssa Mautz and Julianne Stich on the wings, Chicago constantly made it difficult for the Flash – who looked slightly better on the ball – to possess. Western New York was either content or forced to counter, which they did quite well, creating the better chances of the first half, finally breaking through on a driven Adriana free kick from just outside the box in the 42nd minute.
I would call it a controversial first half for the officiating crew, but the whistle that denied WNY an opening goal was more of an error than controversy. The referee saw a foul, let the play go, then blew it back when she saw that the Red Stars were going to play the ball with no Flash players in the vicinity. Unfortunately, a miscommunication in the back led to an own goal and the whistle was blown as the ball was heading into the open net.
As things tend to do in life, they evened themselves out right after Adriana’s goal when Michelle Wenino seemed to equalize with a header off a Michele Weissenhofer long throw, but it was ruled that goalkeeper Ali Lipsher was impeded trying to get the ball. It wasn’t a terribly emphatic call, which led the goal celebrations to go on for a few seconds before everyone realized it was disallowed.
(Weissenhofer’s throws are something to see in person, just for the spectacle of them, if not the effectiveness. At one point, Stephanie Ochs was called for interfering with a throw, a rarely enforced rule that has become more emphasized of late with the proliferation of long throws, and Chicago got an indirect free kick out of the deal. Interesting for you ref nerds out there.)
Katy Frierson, who has been huge for the Flash in their streak, doubled the lead when Adriana deflected a Jamie Forbes clearance and Frierson chipped her from 35 yards out into the empty net. Chicago would get one back on a well-worked goal finished by sub Lauren Alkek, and had a few chances to equalize at the end, but the Flash hung on.
Frierson, taken 10th by Atlanta in last winter’s WPS draft out of Auburn, has made it darn near impossible for Lines to leave her out of the lineup of late. Saturday, she was tucked behind Adriana in an attacking mid role in their 4-3-3, and she produced again.
“Coming into a new league with great players all around me, it’s pretty inevitable that you’re going to get better if you work hard in training every day,” Frierson said. “It took a little time to transiton in terms of the physicality and the speed of play, but the coaches and the players around me were all really nice, really encouraging. They managed me in the right way that I was able to gain some confidence from playing in the games, just trying to get to the level that I know I can, and contribute what I can to the team here.”
Backing up Dames’ assertion about the practice schedule, I was supposed to interview Chalupny at a late practice Friday night (after business hours), but it was called off due to some nasty thunderstorms that rolled through the Chicago area.
The intent – on the eve of the Olympics – was to ask her about not being allowed to be in the national team pool after being an integral part of the gold medal squad in 2008. But, although we had a chance to talk to her after the game, that story has been done. And the more press conferences I watch from professional athletes, the more I see them having to answer the same question over and over. With dozens of kids waiting behind behind me, for her autograph, and a big smile on her face despite the loss, this was not the time.
“It’s awesome that we still have an opportunity to grow women’s soccer here in the U.S.,” Chalupny said. “It’s a shame about the WPS, but we still have a league to play in, and a place we can play in front of so many young girls, and still inspire them to play in this league someday. We’ve got great support from our fans. It was an awesome night for soccer and a great atmosphere.”
And any “great atmosphere” for women’s soccer in this country is definitely encouraging. The reason I was in Chicago at all was to visit a high school friend and his family, which now includes a 5-year old daughter.
As we were walking out, a Red Stars player walked by us, leading her to say, “Is that one of the players that played in the game and we got the autograph from?”
In the darkness, it was nearly impossible to see who it was, but it still wasn’t hard to see the smile on her face.
AROUND THE LEAGUE
Chesapeake 3:3 New England
A couple of people called this result surprising, but I really didn’t think so. The Mutiny’s defense has been vulnerable and Chesapeake has been feisty and got a point with a late goal. In 12 games, New England has now scored 23 times, but conceded 34 times. I see them twice this weekend, I expect 15 goals combined, please.
Indiana 0:5 Western New York
Got to see this one in person. Any recipe for an upset aways includes getting the favored team frustrated early, so when the Flash scored twice in the first 10 minutes, that was about it. Interestingly, all three goals in the first half – against an almost exclusively international team – were scored by internationals: Adriana (Spain) scoring twice and Emily Van Egmond (Australia) once. Not much atmosphere at a newly resurfaced Carroll Stadium in Indianapolis, only a few dozen fans at this one, although the stadium looked nice.
Boston 2:0 Philadelphia
Probably the less said about this, the better, as the Fever didn’t use one sub, but were able to keep the score down to a reasonable margin. And the Breakers had yet another sellout on “Think Pink” night, so that was nice.
Philadelphia 0:3 New York (???)
It reads this scoreline on the WPSL website as of Monday night. The game was started Sunday night, called due to some nasty thunderstorms, rescheduled for Monday, then postponed again, and now this. Is it a forfeit again possibly? We shall see.