Thursday, July 11, 2013

WPSL NW Playoff Preview: Regular season champs THUSC face tough test in Seattle

Four clubs set to square off in Northwest Playoffs this weekend | Photos: Gerald Barnhart (unless noted)
Six weeks of soccer in Oregon and Washington has reduced the field from eight teams to four as the top two clubs from each state head into the Northwest playoffs this weekend in the greater-Seattle area looking to advance to the WPSL Regional Tournament next weekend. Oregon's Tualatin Hills United SC Diamonds and Eugene Metro Azul head north Saturday to face AC Seattle and the Seattle Reign Reserves presented by Issaquah SC (SRR Issaquah) in the semifinals, respectively, with the winners to meet on Sunday.

They say defense wins championships, but the one thing in common among AC Seattle, Eugene Metro Azul, SRR Issaquah SC and the THUSC Diamonds heading into the postseason in the WPSL Northwest is that they were the four clubs that were never shutout this season, scoring in every game played.

THUSC led the Northwest in actual goals scored (not including forfeits) at 3.44, but they were not the only team to reach the three-goal mark with AC Seattle tallying an average of 3.1 per game and SRR Issaquah at an even 3 per game. The fourth playoff side, Eugene, finished with an average of 2.11.

Jen Stoltenberg
Though Tualatin Hills United captured the regular season Northwest championship based on point-percentage (points out of points possible), it was Washington that proved to be the dominant state this season, particularly due to the trio from the greater-Seattle area. Washington teams posted a 10-3-1 record (not including forfeits) against their southern foes from Oregon in 2013, outscoring them 38-20 on the year. THUSC accounted for two of the three Oregon wins and the draw with Westside Timbers notching the other victory in Spokane. THUSC was the only team to pick up points against the Seattle trio, playing to a 1-1 draw at Emerald City and beating visiting AC Seattle 4-2.

One of the keys behind THUSC having the best goals-per-game tally in the Northwest was Jen Stoltenberg, who finished her career at the University of Oregon as the all-time leading scorer. The former Duck was devastating in front of goal with 11 goals and nine assists, accounting for 20 of the teams 31 goals and finishing 13 clear of the next closest player in points for the season. Though AC Seattle's Romina Pinna made a late push to spoil a sweep in the offensive statistical categories, she ultimately finished second at nine for the year. Stoltenberg's teammates Brandi Dawson (Oregon State) and Hannah Kimsey (Concordia) finished tied for second in the assist table with seven each.

Defensively, however, it was a battle between returning foes Emerald City and SRR Issaquah. Each finished the year with four team shutouts to their credit, but Issaquah's Alexis Thode (Washington State) had the most individual clean sheets with three while Emerald City's Liz Ruiz (Boise State) narrowly finished atop the goals-against average table.


SEMIFINALS - Saturday, July 13
(WA-1) SRR Issaquah SC vs Eugene Metro Azul (OR-2)
Delridge Playfield - 5:30
(WA-2) AC Seattle vs THUSC Diamonds (OR-1)
Cedarcrest High School - 6:00

FINAL - Sunday, July 14
Cedarcrest High School - 6:00


Is this the championship showdown for the Northwest? With both teams by far leading the division in scoring and neither being shutout in any games this season, it could easily be argued they are the top two clubs in the region, though SRR Issaquah has the best defense. Between them, AC Seattle has the only loss since their respective second games of the year as they boast a combined record of 12-1-2 since that point.

Romina Pinna
Previous Meeting: The two sides met for the first time just last week with the Italians falling in Oregon, 4-2, in the first of three games in four days on the road. The Northwest's leading scorer Jen Stoltenberg struck less than 30 seconds into the match, but AC Seattle roared back with goals from Jillian Nicks in the 21st and Viviana Schiavi in the 37th. That lead was short-lived, however, as Stoltenberg left her mark yet again a minute later and then set up up Shanna Lechelt to reclaim the lead before the break. Brandi Dawson would add some insurance with the lone goal of the second half.

AC Seattle (7-2-1, 27GF/8GA): Scoring diversity personified. The club has a number of players that have been big contributors for the team, but they seem to come in bursts with different players rotating as the star players each game. One of the regular contributors though has been Romina Pinna. The striker has had three multi-goal games this season and has six of the team's last 15 goals. The Evergreen Cup derby champions as the best in Washington head-to-head were difficult to stop this year, scoring at least twice in every game except their second of the season, a 2-1 home loss to Emerald City.

At the other end of the field, Ilaria Leoni played every minute in goal for AC Seattle this season with a 1.50 goals-against average. She was the only keeper to do so as Liz Ruiz played all but 54 minutes for Emerald City.

THUSC Diamonds (7-1-1, 31/11): The trio of Jen Stoltenberg, Brandi Dawson and Hannah Kimsey have been the jewels of this team. Stoltenberg, who finished as the all-time leading scorer at Oregon, kicked the season off with a brace and never really let up. She tallied at least one point in every game but two this season for the Diamonds. Not surprisingly they were two of the team's three lowest scoring outputs for the campaign. Stoltenberg, in the nine games available, scored 11 goals, an output that was equal to or better than three club totals in the division (Westside 11, Spokane 4, Bend 3).

Chris Lewis played the full 90 in all but one of the club's nine games this season, posting a 1.38 GAA over 720 minutes for the third-best goalkeeping performance in the Northwest this season. In her lone appearance, all Taylor Luty did in relief was record the club's lone shutout of the season, a 2-0 win against rival Westside Timbers, whom they narrowly defeated 3-2 earlier in the season.


The other semifinal features two sides that struggled down the stretch, but managed to make the first half of their seasons hold up to make the playoffs.
Photo: NW Sports Pics

Previous Meetings: Played in Washington, it was a one-sided affair in favor of Issaquah, who jumped on top of a tired Azul squad that played the night before with three goals in the first nine minutes from three different players. With a pair of goals, it was the second of three consecutive standout games for Erin Vaughan, who scored the game before and went on to tally a goal and two assists in her next outing. Last year in a smaller division, Issaquah took the season series with a 3-0 win at home and a 1-1 draw on the road. Trinidad & Tobago international Kennya Cordner scored three of the four goals, but the standout striker was a midseason signing by the club's NWSL affiliate Seattle Reign. Joana Houplin was the other goal scorer for Issaquah while Caitlyn Jobanek tallied the lone goal for Eugene.

Eugene Metro Azul (4-5-1, 19/26): Since winning three of their first four games, it has been a difficult go of it for the Azul as they have just one win in their last six games (1-4-1) - a forfeit victory courtesy of the Spokane Shine canceling their road trip to Oregon - and come in as the only team of the four with a losing record. It was not for a lack of effort though as the team scored in each of the five games they played during that span, tallying seven goals. The leading scorer on the team was Italian import Gaia Mastrovincenzo with four goals and an assist.

In goal, the club relied heavily on Elise Nord for most of the season with a 3.20 GAA over 675 minutes, but Abby Steele saw a good chuck of time in goal over the final few games. Azul was the only club among the playoff contenders that failed to record at least one shutout, allowing 26 goals for the season.
Erin Vaughan | Photo: John Godek

SRR Issaquah SC (7-1-2, 27/8): Being on top can be difficult. The team started the year losing a couple players to newcomers AC Seattle and then midway in lost Cordner to NWSL affiliate Seattle Reign. Issaquah, though, won their first four en route to a 6-0-1 start before falling 3-1 on the road in the second match to the Italian side after a 2-2 draw in the first. After that they received a forfeit victory courtesy of the Spokane Shine expulsion and played rival Emerald City to a 1-1 draw to close out the campaign. Vaughan's four goals is tied with six other players for fourth-best goal scoring tally in the Northwest as the team relied heavily on full team contributions. She was one of four different players to record a brace on the season in a game, joined by Cordner, Molly Boyd and Amanda Perez, who left injured.

On the defensive end, Issaquah led the league with only eight goals allowed in nine actual games played, posting a Northwest-high four shutouts. Alexis Thode accounted for three of the four shutouts, finishing with the most in the division, though she finished second by the slimmest of margins in goals-against average at 1.00 to Emerald City's Liz Ruiz (0.96).


SRR Issaquah is the easy choice to advance from their semifinal, advancing 3-1, while the other contest is a much more difficult decision to make. If Jen Stoltenberg is in the lineup, my pick is for THUSC to win it all as the Diamonds have been unstoppable of late. I project THUSC wins a shootout 4-3 in the semifinal against AC Seattle and avenge their lone loss of the season to Issaquah, a 2-1 decision in Oregon, with a 3-1 victory in the Northwest Final. If Stoltenberg is out, it could go either way, most likely with AC Seattle taking a 3-2 decision in the semifinal and deny Issaquah's hopes of vengeance with a 2-1 win over the Reign Reserves.


The winners of the Northwest move on to the regional finals in Sacramento July 20 and 21 to compete with the champions from the Big Sky-North, Pacific-North and Pacific-South for the regional title and a spot in the WPSL Final Four.