When FC Gold Pride folded just months after beating the Philadelphia Independence in last years Womens Professional Soccer title game, Amy Rodriguez and a few other Independence players joked that, as runner-ups, they should be crowned league champions.
But the truth was that seeing a rival team fall by the wayside was probably even more disappointing than being thumped, 4-0, by that same team in the WPS finals.
A few teams have folded over the years and its devastating every time that happens, said Rodriguez, a star forward on the Independence. We want this to be a surviving, exciting league.
A year later, things are decidedly more upbeat as the WPS, boosted by the United States thrilling run through the 2011 Womens World Cup, has seen its attendance grow and, according to Independence head coach Paul Riley, at least six new teams are hoping to gain entry into the league next season.
Just as exciting from a local standpoint is that the Independence are back in the league finals for a second straight season. Theyll face the Western New York Flash in the title game Saturday at Sahlens Stadium in Rochester, N.Y., at 4 p.m.
The game can be seen live on CSN.
Our big slogan this year has been unfinished business, Rodriguez said. I think were looking forward to taking care of that and hopefully bringing back our first championship to Philly.
Interestingly enough, Philadelphias opponent in the finals this year looks eerily similar to their opponent in last years final as the expansion Flash signed many of the players from now-defunct FC Gold Pride. That group includes Brazilian Marta, a five-time FIFA Player of the Year, Canadian goal-scorer Christine Sinclair and local product Becky Edwards, who starred at Downingtown West High School. Marta and Sinclair, along with rising American star Alex Morgan, form one of the leagues most potent offensive attacks.
But the second-year Independence which finished the regular season in second place in the six-team league, behind only Western New York are better equipped to deal with such star power this year, thanks to an influx of new talent that includes goalie Nicole Barnhart, who led FC Gold Pride to the title last year, defenders Leigh Ann Robinson and Kia McNeill, forward Tasha Kai and midfielders Vero Boquette and Sinead Farrelly, who Riley called a revelation.
Those newcomers, in addition to key holdovers like Rodriguez, Nikki Krzysik and Tina DiMartino, have Riley confident the Independence can gain some revenge on a team that he says everyone describes as the Gold Pride of the East.
We dont have a lot of household names like Western New York but we have a lot of great players, a lot of chemistry and a group that can win together, the Independence coach said. We have a team and they have a lot of individual players. The question is whether the team will win over the individual players.
The Independence, which went 2-1 against the Flash during the regular season, booked their ticket to the finals with a 2-0 semifinal triumph over Abby Wambach and magicJack last weekend at PPL Park.
Rodriguez who led Philly with 13 goals a season ago but had been slumping since returning from World Cup duty this summer scored in that win, the second straight game she found the back of the net. That pleased her coach to no end.
A couple of weeks ago she couldnt hit the back end of a barn, Riley said. Now shes flying around and is a different player. Everyone wrote her off but shes been working really hard and playing well with Tasha Kai. Shes in a really great mental state. Id love to see her ram it down some peoples throats and win this game for us.
For Rodriguez, her late-season revival is more about developing better chemistry with her teammates after her World Cup hiatus. The 24-year-old striker only hopes she can keep it going into Saturdays final and wipe away the bitter feeling left behind after last years ugly championship loss.
And from there, she hopes the three-year-old league will continue to build off the World Cup and expand and flourish, rather than contract.
This is a very exciting time for womens soccer, Rodriguez said. Were hoping this brings more fans out to the games because we have one of the best leagues in the world.
Email Dave Zeitlin at email@example.com