Philadelphia Independence edges Washington Freedom in first round of WPS playoffs

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 20, 2010; 12:09 AM

WEST CHESTER, PA. - Ashlyn Harris's remarkable goalkeeping had carried the Washington Freedom into overtime of its Women's Professional Soccer first-round playoff match against the Philadelphia Independence on Sunday. Another 90 seconds or so, and the Freedom would have felt pretty good about its chances with Harris protecting the net in a penalty-kick tiebreaker.

But in the 120th minute of a scoreless affair, Amy Rodriguez solved Harris and compensated for several misses with a near-post effort that lifted the Independence to a 1-0 victory before 2,378 at Farrell Stadium on the West Chester University campus.

"She really kept us in this game," Freedom forward Abby Wambach said, "and for that reason, I just had this belief that we were going to win."

In regular time, Harris made three outstanding saves and benefited from Rodriguez's poor finishing. But in the final moments of overtime, Rodriguez collected Christina DiMartino's through ball and stung an eight-yard shot into the left side for her 13th goal of the year.

The stirring finish sent the third-seeded Independence (11-10-4) into Thursday's semifinal at Boston, with the winner advancing to the title match next Sunday against top-seeded FC Gold Pride (California).

The result also extinguished a late-season resurgence by the Freedom, which embarked on a 4-1-2 run to claim the final playoff berth. Despite entering the postseason with a 1-7-4 away record, Washington (8-10-7) might have been slightly favored against a Philadelphia squad that had been outscored 8-1 in four straight losses to end the league schedule.

But the Independence was vastly superior generating opportunities, and if not for Harris's work and Rodriguez's faulty touch, the Freedom never would have reached overtime. "It was an absolutely spectacular performance by a goalkeeper at any level," Washington Coach Jim Gabarra said.

Harris, a rookie from North Carolina signed by the Freedom in June after St. Louis Athletica folded, inherited the starting job the final 10 games because the Freedom's top two keepers were out with season-ending injuries. Though no one enjoys settling a match on penalty kicks, Washington would have embraced it, given Harris's form.

Her first quality stop came in the 26th minute on Lianne Sanderson's angled bid. The Freedom labored to test keeper Val Henderson, and after the break, Philadelphia was on the verge of a breakthrough. Rodriguez, however, couldn't finish, striking an eight-yarder at Harris and blasting high on a clear look from 16 yards.

Later, after Wambach worked a combination with Lene Mykjaland and sent a sliding shot narrowly wide of the right post, Harris made her finest save, soaring to deny Lori Lindsey's blast from distance that was headed for an upper corner. Rodriguez ran onto the rebound, but faltered again.

The addition of Danesha Adams bolstered Philadelphia's attack, but she followed Rodriguez's lead by stabbing a shot wide and having a bid blocked by Sonia Bompastor in the six-yard box. Rodriguez then hit the left post from close range in the 88th minute and DiMartino couldn't latch onto a last-minute cross.

With exhaustion setting in, neither side was particularly dangerous in extra time until the goal. Losing in the late stages was "certainly cruel," Gabarra said, "but not unfair."

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