No Wambach? No Problem for Washington Freedom in 2-1 Win over Sky Blue FC
Freedom midfielder #10 Homare Sawa battles for a head ball agains Sky Blue FC midfielder #14 Collette McCallum during the Washington Freedom's 2-1 victory over Sky Blue FC at RFK Stadium in Washington, DC on Saturday, May 23, 2009. David Lovell/DC Sports Box
WASHINGTON, DC--Saturday afternoon’s match between the Washington Freedom and Sky Blue FC may have only been the first half of a RFK Stadium doubleheader with D.C. United, but the Freedom had no intentions of playing second fiddle.
 
Cat Whitehill and Lisa De Vanna capped a strong first half with goals in the 35th and 43rd minutes, and goalkeeper Erin McLeod held strong against a furious second-half rally, as the Freedom (2-2-3) triumphed 2-1 over their New Jersey rivals.

The tale of two halves has been a recurring one for Washington, which had taken the lead into the half in each of its past two games, only to see its opponent even the score in the second period.

“We’ve come out blazing and the first half we’ve played really strong,” said McLeod, who was in net for one of those matches, a 1-1 tie last week against the Boston Breakers. “For us I think the key is…the last 30 minutes of the game, we have to keep up the level of play.”

Because of hastily-scheduled friendly between the United States and Canadian national teams, both Washington and Sky Blue FC (1-4-2) were missing several key players: star forward Abby Wambach (USA) for the Freedom and defender Christie Rampone (USA) and midfielders Heather O’Reilly (USA) and Kelly Parker (Canada) for the visitors.

Whithill downplayed Wambach’s unavailability, noting she also missed Washington’s last game because of a red card suspension, but did allow that the trio of missing players “was really evident” on Sky Blue FC’s roster.

Wambach’s absence proved to be a golden opportunity for Lisa De Vanna, the Australian-born striker vying for the third starting forward position in Washington’s 4-3-3 formation. Even with the presence of season-long starter Allie Long, De Vanna was clearly the conduit for Washington’s offense until exhaustedly leaving the game in the 78th minute.

Matched up against Sky Blue FC’s towering outside backs, De Vanna (5’2”) utilized her blazing speed to counter her size disadvantage, repeatedly dashing around her defenders to catch hopeful stretch passes from her teammates. Whitehill credited her teammate’s hustle, noting that early on, “even though no one played her the ball, Lisa saw that she could beat [her defender]” with her quickness. Twice De Vanna barely misfired, lunging for a ball barely out of reach and then putting a low-angle breakaway shot into the side of the net.

Despite the two missed opportunities—after the game, De Vanna admitted, “I thought, ‘well, this isn’t going to be my day’”—De Vanna continued to look for holes in the Sky Blue FC defense, and hit paydirt just a few minutes before the end of the half.
Sky Blue FC defender Keeley Dowling appeared to have the inside angle on a Washington stretch pass rolling toward the opposing net, but De Vanna’s ducked underneath Dowling’s outreached arm and dashed in alone from, sliding the ball just inside the right post as Branam looked on helplessly.

De Vanna’s goal capped an impressive first half in which the Freedom controlled the ball and dictated the pace of play almost from start to finish. Despite a heavy advantage in shots, the Freedom were unable to put a ball on net until the 35th minute, when Whitehill nodded Sonia Bompastor’s corner kick service into the yawning net.

Even in her post-game interview Whitehill was surprised by the sequence, saying with a bit of amazement, “I’ve never had [it] happen before, but I was unmarked.” At the last moment a trio of Sky Blue FC picked up Whitehill standing along five yards off the near post, but as she said, by then it was too late.

As much as the first half belonged to the Freedom, the second half was dictated largely by Sky Blue FC. McLeod, who was rarely tested in the first half, had to defuse several brilliant scoring chances by Rosana, a three-time Olympian for Brazil. It was a daunting task for McLeod, herself a 2008 Olympian for Canada playing in only her second game after tearing her ACL last September.

“I’ve been with this team for two weeks, we’re still learning to work with one another,” McLeod allowed, but Whitehill had high words of praise for her goalie: “She’s been huge for us…she’s been with us for two weeks and I feel like she’s been [in net for Washington] for two months.”

Eventually Rosana ended put Sky Blue FC on the scoreboard when she capitalized on a Freedom defensive lapse, sneaking behind the defensive back line and depositing the ball in the back of the net on a breakaway in a play closely resembling De Vanna’s earlier goal.

With the victory, Washington’s first home win in WPS play, the Freedom have now earned points in their past four games (2-0-2) after starting the season 0-2-1. More importantly, the win temporarily vaulted the Freedom over the Chicago Red Stars (who played Saturday evening in a game that ended after this article was finished) into fourth place, the cut-off to make the playoffs in the seven-team WPS.

The Freedom next play on Sunday, May 31st, against FC Gold Pride (Santa Clara, CA) at 4 pm at their usual home field at the Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds, MD.

NOTES

-The Freedom will participate in another doubleheader with DC United at RFK next month, taking on the Chicago Red Stars at 4:30 pm before United faces the Chicago Fire at 7:30.

-Numerous players on both teams have local ties, but only Washington’s Alex Singer (University of Virginia), Becky Sauerbrunn (Virginia) and Emily Janss (Maryland) saw playing time. Singer and Sauerbrunn both played the entire game, while Janss was an 89th minute defensive substitution.

-Though most of the Freedom players were in favor of being the opening act in a double bill with DC United, several noted a big difference in playing on the large pitch in expansive RFK Stadium compared to the smaller Maryland SoccerPlex field, where fans sit much closer to the action.