Fifty-two minutes into the inaugural title game of Women's Professional Soccer last Saturday, goalkeeper Jenni Branam showed why she's the poster girl for Sky Blue FC, a team that had to overcome injuries, two coaching changes and the league's worst record after nine weeks just to make the playoffs. Branam collided so hard with Los Angeles Sol defender Brittany Bock that the goalie was left curled on the ground. After several seconds, however, she got up and returned to her post. Branam made two crucial saves late in the game, and she mounted the winners' podium wearing a huge grin. "What hurts?" said the exhausted and battered keeper a few hours after Sky Blue's 1--0 victory at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif. "My insides, my shoulder, my back, my knee ... but nothing's as painful when you win."
WPS, the second attempt at women's pro soccer in the U.S.—WUSA lasted from 2001 to '03—lost money and drew only 7,218 fans to the title game at the Sol's home field. But the league, which includes most of the world's top players, didn't lack for fine play or high drama. Consider Sky Blue. After the New Jersey--based club stumbled to a 1-4-2 start, coach Ian Sawyers was suspended on May 23 and fired five days later. He was replaced by assistant Kelly Lindsey, who had a 5-3-3 record before resigning with no public explanation on July 29.
With two games left, G.M. Gerry Marrone turned to defender Christie Rampone, who had represented the U.S. in three Olympics and three World Cups. Rampone, 34, had zero coaching experience and was still recovering from a July 18 surgery to repair a ruptured ovarian cyst. But she didn't hesitate to add one more role to those of captain and mom. (Her daughter, Rylie, turns four next month.) "It wouldn't have been fair," she says, "to have someone come in who had never seen these girls before."
By keeping her strategy simple and making a few savvy substitutions, Rampone led Sky Blue to playoff upsets over Washington and St. Louis before facing the top-seeded Sol. L.A. had the league's best record (12-3-5), its best defense and the world's best player: Marta, the spectacularly creative 23-year-old from Brazil who led WPS with 10 goals.
But Sky Blue had momentum, and before the game was 30 minutes old, it had two other things in its favor: a goal by forward Heather O'Reilly and, after Sol defender Allison Falk was red-carded for bringing down forward Natasha Kai from behind, a one-man advantage. In the second half L.A. attacked relentlessly, but Branam and the Rampone-led back line didn't crack. "You never wish to go through so many ups and downs like we went through this season, but in the end, it's so character-building," said O'Reilly. "Nothing was going to break us."
True, but Rampone knows that next season there will be at least one break with the recent past. She'll be back on the field, but, she said, "I'm definitely retiring as coach for now."
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Despite the lure of superstars such as Marta (below, after a missing shot last Saturday), the average crowd in the first year of WPS was only 4,493; local sponsors were scarce; and some teams lost between $1 million and $2 million, according to commissioner Tonya Antonucci. But considering the recession and the burn rate of WPS's predecessor (the WUSA lost $100 million in three years), the numbers could have been a lot worse. Two new teams, in Atlanta and Philadelphia, will increase the total to nine next year. "We lost a little bit more than we projected," says Antonucci, "[but] we're trending in the right direction."
MICHAEL JANOSZ/ISIPHOTOS.COM (BRANAM)
HER SISTERS' KEEPER In the title game Branam took the Sol's best shots and gave Sky Blue a shutout.
LORI SHEPLER/AP (MARTA)