Riley, Philadelphia return to WPS final
There’s no secret to the Western New York Flash success. A dose of Christine Sinclair; pinch of Alex Morgan; and a sprinkle of Marta magic and you’ve got the Women’s Professional Soccer regular season champions. As for their WPS Championship opponent, it’s a much different story.
For the Philadelphia Independence, they work on a different strategy. In its second year, the Independence are entering its second consecutive championship match. Last year, the then expansion club lost to Marta, Sinclair - along with five other current Flash players - and the FC Gold Pride, 4-0. Back then, Independence coach Paul Riley knew what the team’s fate would be. Having played two 120-minute matches in three days prior to a cross-country trip to California, Riley and the Independence were running on empty. The Gold Pride pounced on the tiring opposition.
Nearly a year has gone by, and the Gold Pride are no longer a squad in the league. After folding, most of the club has signed on with the Flash (13-2-3, 42 pts.), taking the newest WPS expansion club to a first place finish and home field for Saturday’s WPS Championship (4 p.m., FOX Sports Net, replay 6 p.m. Sunday, FOX Soccer). Meanwhile, the Independence (11-4-3, 36 pts.) have regrouped and positioned itself for a chance at championship glory.
Saturday’s match will feature a quasi-rematch of the 2010 championship match, as Riley guides his club against Marta, Sinclair, Ali Riley, Kandace Wilson, Candace Chapman and Becky Edwards (formerly of the Pride). But Riley has reloaded his club. As the 2011 season got underway, the Independence had Megan Rapinoe. Now, as the World Cup passed, Riley and the Independence realized they could make it without the US international, sending her to magic Jack (the club Philly beat in the WPS Super Semifinal).
As to the reason for the consecutive successful years in Philadelphia, look no further than Riley. His coaching methods have helped completely different casts of characters -- from the Allison Falk’s, Val Henderson’s and Lori Lindsey’s of the world (all who started for the club in the 2010 championship) to the Leigh Ann Robinson’s, Nicole Barnhart’s, Tasha Kai’s and Veronica Boquete’s of the world (2011 Independence playoff starters). No matter who Riley has, he seems to have the right formula for success.
"As a coaching staff we create an environment which allows players to express themselves,” said Riley, who has claimed two consecutive WPS Coach of the Year awards while at Philly. “We have a strict training regimen and the players seem to flourish in our total soccer culture. We have a fantastic group of players who have embraced and invested themselves in every facet of the Philadelphia Independence."
One player that knows about success on the pitch - at least at the club level - is Nicole Barnhart. A year ago, Barnhart was celebrating with Gold Pride as they hoisted the WPS championship with a 4-0 finals victory over Philadelphia. This year, after leaving the club for nearly two months while backing up Hope Solo for the silver medalist United States at the 2011 World Cup, Barnhart was leading Philadelphia to a second-place finish in the WPS regular season. Barnhart’s championship experience was especially evident in the semifinals when she stopped eight shots in a 2-0 Independence win.
“The fact that he can get everybody to go out and work so hard for each other and play as a team and not a bunch of individuals is so motivating, but he does it all while making it a very enjoyable training environment,” said Barnhart of her coach’s successful track record. “His passion for the game comes out through every player because he makes us all find that same love for the game.”
But it hasn’t been just the championship presence of Barnhart that has led Philadelphia to the championship. Also contributing has been the veteran presence of Robinson on defense, Kai on offense (leading the club in scoring) and Boquete, who claimed the league’s MVP (taking it away from the Flash’s Marta). If 2010 has been a surprise, the 2011 year for Philadelphia has been something of the norm for the only two-time WPS Championship participant.
"We have an extremely competitive atmosphere and whether it's a short sided game or full field the players compete for their starting jobs. Our entire squad is responsible for getting us here and managing top class professionals is a pleasure,” said Riley. “They know what is expected and they all dedicated to the cause and to improving their game everyday. It's been a remarkable year for many of the players and after last year's disappointment we approach the WPS final with a determination to bring the trophy back to our crazy Philly fans."
Barnhart was a part of the club that denied Philly from bringing home that championship for its fans last year. She sees a difference from the experience that brought a championship last year to what could be a title winner this year.
“[Philadelphia] does not have all of those big name players, but we go out and work so hard for each other every day and make each other better doing so. On the field, we compete hard while having fun,” Barnhart said. “There are so many great personalities on this team that it is a really great group to be around, and I feel like that makes us go out and play for each other every time we step on the field.”
On Saturday, Barnhart and the Independence will look to treat their coach to his first WPS championship on FOX Sports Net; kickoff is set for 4 p.m. ET.