After the U.S. failed to convert its first three penalty kicks against Japan in the Women's World Cup final, it was refreshing to see the spot-kick excellence during the penalty shootout in last Saturday's Women's Professional Soccer final. Nine times the Western New York Flash and Philadelphia Independence approached their penalties after a 1--1 tie, and nine times they succeeded—until Flash goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris made a dramatic diving save on Philly's Laura del Rio in the final round to clinch the title. "We were saying the whole time that we knew Ashlyn would save one for us," said Flash forward Christine Sinclair, who scored the game's first goal in the 64th minute. "And she came up absolutely huge."
So too did WPS, which rode a modest post--World Cup bump in popularity and drew 10,461 fans to Rochester's Sahlen's Stadium, a league record for a final. As if to prove there's more to women's soccer than the stars on display at the World Cup, the two biggest names in the title game (the Flash's Marta and Alex Morgan) had little impact on the match, which turned into an epic after Philadelphia forward Amy Rodriguez matched Sinclair's goal in the 87th minute. The teams exchanged a flurry of chances in extra time; Independence goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart made a remarkable save on Caroline Seger's last-minute header before her opposing netminder ruled the shootout. "The fans have been absolutely incredible coming out here and supporting us," said Harris afterward. "We're hoping they come back next year."
Surviving into 2012 is WPS's biggest challenge after the league lost money again this season, even though it contracted into a six-team circuit based solely on the East Coast. Yet players and organizers were optimistic in Rochester that the league would return, not least because the owners plan to enact several belt-tightening measures. "From a player's perspective, you worry when they say that," said U.S. star Abby Wambach, who plays for the South Florida--based magicJack. "All that really means is a lesser salary for the players. But in the end it's going to be a decision all the players have to make collectively to come to a good enough agreement to keep the league surviving."
It's worth noting that all but one player on the U.S. World Cup team competed this season in WPS, which for all its financial issues is still the world's top women's league. Having another global women's soccer tournament at next year's Olympics should help WPS, but plenty of questions remain about the league's long-term viability. "Hopefully the league expands and players get more opportunities," said Philadelphia forward Natasha Kai. "Every day I feel blessed to have this team, this league. I don't know what I'd do if I woke up tomorrow and there was no women's soccer." After an up-and-down year for the sport, everyone in WPS is hoping she doesn't have to answer the question.
How bad is MLS's Eastern Conference? So bad that the MLS Cup final could be without a team from the East for the third straight year. The league's top five teams are all from the West (Los Angeles, Seattle, Dallas, Colorado and Salt Lake), and East-leading Columbus didn't do its region's reputation any favors last week by getting walloped 6--2 by Seattle, which got a hat trick from Lamar Neagle. It's unfortunate that MLS's playoff structure is geography-based: The East gets three automatic bids (the other team in the Eastern bracket is a wild card, which can come from either conference), and the top three teams in the West are on the same side of the bracket, which means that once again the league's two best teams won't meet in the MLS Cup final.
ANDY MEAD/YCJ/ICON SMI (HARRIS)
PERFECT TENTH After nine straight PK conversions, Harris got her hands on del Rio's effort, giving the Flash a championship in its first season in the league.
OTTO GREULE JR./GETTY IMAGES (NEAGLE)