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Independence trumps Freedom

It was a game that, at times, it looked like Philadelphia should have had four or five goals on the board. Instead, it took 120 minutes for the Independence to score the only goal of the match and earn a well-deserved win.

Sometimes, you just got to do it the hard way.

The Philadelphia Independence hosted Washington Freedom on Sunday in the first round of the WPS playoffs, and it was a nervous start for both teams. Although Washington’s Abby Wambach had a chance to score in the third minute, she headed the ball wide of goal. After that, the Independence defense effectively shut down the league’s third highest scorer save for one scary moment in the 65th minute when Wambach intercepted a lazy pass to make a run on goal. But Independence keeper Val Henderson was well positioned and Wambach was forced away from goal and into a sliding strike that was just wide.

“I thought our back four was outstanding,” said Independence coach and WPS Coach of the Year Paul Riley. “Val was strong in net, and Jen Buczkowski cleans up everything in front of our defense. They did a good job keeping Abby at bay, which was extremely important in tonight’s win.”

Holmfidur Magnusdottir takes the ball off of Nikki Marshall. (Photo by Paul Rudderow.)

The just-returned from injury Holmfridur Magnusdottir—who is easily the most dangerous left back playing professional soccer in Philadelphia—had a chance to score in the 16th minute on a breakaway, but Washington’s rookie goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris responded with a save that was one of several huge saves in the first half alone. Lianne Sanderson, who had an excellent game before being replaced by the outstanding Danesha Adams in the 78th minute, had her 25th minute effort thwarted by Harris, as was a shot from point blank range from Amy Rodriguez in the 27th minute.

“Harris made at least five big saves, when most games you expect only one or two,” said Washington head coach Jim Gabarra. “She certainly played an incredible game.”

She needed to, as Philadelphia had 24 shots in the game, nine of which were on goal.

That the momentum had shifted in Philadelphia’s favor was quickly apparent in the second half. A corner kick in the 50th minute from Independence captain Lori Lindsey pinballed dangerously around the box before Washington’s Sonia Bompastor was able to clear it off the line.

Six minutes later, the wily Tina DiMartino got behind Washington’s defense to lay off a pass for an open Amy Rodriguez. Once again, Harris came up with a big save.

Coach Riley talks to Amy Rodriguez before the start of extra time. (Photo by Paul Rudderow.)

“It felt like I had a curse on me,” said Rodriguez.

The curse on Rodriguez continued when, just a minute later, Rodriguez buried a lovely lofted ball from DiMartino only to have the goal disallowed for handball.

In the 79th minute Lindsey launched a rocket. Harris made a beautiful one-handed save and followed that up by saving Rodriguez’s attempt to capitalize on the rebound.

The closing ten minutes of regulation time saw the Independence have three clear opportunities to put the game away. Adam’s broke through the Washington backline only to fire wide in the 81st minute. Rodriguez hit the post in the 88th minute. DiMartino’s effort from five yards out went over the bar in the 90th minute.

The frustration of not being able to put the game away in regulation time was compounded by practical concerns: the winner of the first playoff would have to face Boston on only three days of rest and both teams had key players who had just returned from international duty.

Washington gave the Independence a scare in the 96th minute when Lene Mykjaland got behind the defense. But Nikki Krzysik was able to tap the ball away and Henderson quickly smothered the ball.

A free kick by Magnusdottir in the 108th minute went over the bar. In the 118th minute, Rodriguez received the ball with her back to goal and her turning shot went wide.

“I told [Rodriguez] you’re going to miss,” Riley said. “The best strikers in the world miss chance after chance after chance. You’ve got to keep going. You’re going to get another one. Just stick with it.”

The Independence celebrates the 120th minute winner from Amy Rodriguez. (Photo by Paul Rudderow.)

Stick with it she did. In the closing seconds of extra time, DiMartino fed a pass through the left. Rodriguez ran on to the ball at the top of the box, turned her defender and drilled her shot into the upper corner to record her first goal since mid-August and give the Independence a ticket to Thursday’s Super Semifinal.

“I was SO happy when I finally scored,” said Rodriguez. “We had so many chances that didn’t go our way…I felt like I was cursed! But, Paul told us to keep shooting, keep putting the ball on goal and we’d get one, and it finally happened. Just in time!”

“We played our hearts out,” Wambach said after the game. “From day one we have become a better team and in the long run I am proud of my players. I’m proud of us to last throughout an entire game overtime and trying to win at the end.”

Philadelphia have a 0–2–2 regular season record against Boston. “We’re going on pure adrenaline at this point,” said Coach Riley. “We’ll practice tomorrow, work on recovering and preparing for Boston, and head up there to play them in a couple of days. We’ve never beat them before, but to be fair I think that they would have rather faced the Freedom. We are back on track with the win and we need to keep the streak going.”

“It’s always been a good battle with Boston,” Lindsey said. “It’s do-or-die time now. It just comes down to effort.”

You can watch the Super Semifinal on Thursday, September 23 at 8pm on FSC.

Cover photo courtesy of Philadelphia Independence.

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