Take a look back at a summary of the 2009 WPS season and you’ll see a cool underdog story. Sky Blue FC, who grabbed the final playoff spot, went on a surprise run to capture the inaugural WPS championship. United States women’s national team regulars Natasha Kai, Heather O’Reilly and Christie Pearce (then Rampone) turned in their strongest performances of the season when it mattered most, defeating the heavily favored Los Angeles Sol, 1-0.
But despite the presence of those star players, the team’s rise was inexplicable. At no point during the season did Sky Blue manage to beat any of the other three playoff teams. By the end of the year, Pearce was both the starting center back and the team’s third coach of the season.
There was never any public statement made about what, specifically, experienced head coach Ian Sawyers did wrong. But when Sky Blue CEO Thomas Hofstetter fired him mid-season, he heavily implied that Sawyers was a bit of a jerk to his players. From a Frank Giase article in The Star-Ledger:
“What I consider inappropriate is not necessarily inappropriate for other people. It’s how we would like to run the company. It might be okay for other organizations, but certain things I see were not adequate for the Sky Blue organization. There were a lot of things, the way he ran the team, way he communicated with the team, the way he treated the team.”
His assistant, Kelly Lindsay, took over as head coach. But Lindsay had a good working relationship with Sawyers, and was never comfortable with his firing. With just two games left in the regular season, Lindsay and assistant Joe Dorini resigned, leaving Sky Blue with no adequate in-house replacement, and Pearce had to take up coaching duties.
Lindsay didn’t even set up a meeting to step down. Here’s Hofstetter again, from Giasi at the Star-Ledger:
“She left without saying anything to me. She gave us a letter and didn’t say anything and she walked out. What was upsetting to us and the team was that she let the team down.”
This was undoubtedly annoying to Sky Blue’s management and players, but it shouldn’t have been particularly meaningful. The team was expected to finish in fourth or fifth place, lose in the first round of the playoffs if it managed to sneak in, and head into the offseason with plenty of time to find a new head coach.
In the last game of the regular season, Sky Blue was dramatically overmatched by the Washington Freedom’s stellar attacking duo of Abby Wambach and Lisa De Vanna. Wambach scored twice, and her Australian partner added another goal in a 3-1 victory. But thanks to a late-season collapse by the Boston Breakers, Sky Blue snuck into the playoffs in fourth place anyway. With a negative goal differential.
WPS had seven teams in 2009, with four making the playoffs. But instead of setting up a bracket with a pair of semifinal matchups, the league gave the first-place team a bye to the finals, and the second-place team a bye to the semifinals. Washington and Sky Blue, the No. 3 and 4 ranked teams, faced off in a quarterfinal one week after that last regular season game.
Pearce proved to be an excellent coach on that day, dealing with the 90-plus degree heat by playing a slow, possession-based system and using Kai for only 45 minutes so she could run at full speed for all of the time she was on the pitch. Impact substitute Francielle came on with 30 minutes remaining and scored the winner in the 2-1 victory after a long solo run.
Sky Blue fared even worse against St. Louis Athletica in the regular season than it did against the Freedom, losing all three matches and getting shut out in two of them. Athletica goalkeeper Hope Solo played superbly, and was only beaten by a shot that couldn’t have been stopped by Stretch Armstrong holding a tennis racket, scored uncharacteristically by fullback Keeley Dowling. It’s the only goal she scored in pro soccer.
These were two impressive upset victories, though not outrageous ones. While the Freedom and Athletica were both considered to be better teams than Sky Blue, the gap wasn’t actually as big as the TEAM IN TURMOIL narrative made it feel. Washington finished the season with an even goal differential, while St. Louis was plus-4. They were good, but not great teams.
The Los Angeles Sol, though? It was arguably the best team in the world. Marta was the league MVP, but the award could have just as easily gone to one of her teammates. Camille Abily scored eight goals while controlling the midfield, Aya Miyama led the league in assists, and goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc led the league with 12 shutouts while recording a better save percentage than Solo.
But Abily wouldn’t be there for the final, which proved decisive. Every playoff team was without European players due to the WPS playoffs being scheduled at the same time as the UEFA European Women’s Championship, but Abily — who would go on to win the WPS championship the following season with FC Gold Pride, then 10 French league titles and 5 Champions Leagues with Lyon — was the biggest missing piece of them all.
Perhaps the Sol would have found their footing given some time to settle into the game, but it was given no such opportunity. A missing Abily meant early turnovers. Early turnovers meant space for Kai to exploit. And with the midfielders in front of them struggling to control the match as it usually did, the previously superb center back partnership of Stephanie Cox and Allison Falk was exposed. Sky Blue rode an early goal and a Falk red card to a comfortable 1-0 win.
There was no evidence to support the idea that Sky Blue should have won any of those three playoff games. It won zero regular season games in nine attempts against those opponents. It didn’t have a coach.
And yet, Sky Blue was the decisively better team in all three of its playoff matches. Full-time coaches were outcoached by Pearce. Her team controlled the ball better and had a better defensive shape than three teams that had previously been far superior.
A squad with Pearce, Kai and O’Reilly in the prime of their careers, plus Yael Averbuch in midfield, shouldn’t ever be finishing a season with a negative goal differential. But the team was mediocre and messy for 20 games, then organized and meticulous for its final three. Next season, these players returned and several top talents — including Carli Lloyd — joined up, but the team got worse. Sky Blue missed the playoffs in 2010 and finished with a minus-11 goal differential.
So what happened? Well, WPS scheduling happened. I don’t think Sky Blue would have won that final if Abily was playing. But also: Jen Buczkowski happened.
Buczkowski was overlooked in her younger days due to standing just 5’5”. She fell to the sixth round of the 2009 WPS draft despite being a three-time All-American and a MAC Hermann Trophy finalist, and only played the full 90 minutes on seven occasions during the regular season for Sky Blue. During the 2009 playoffs, she started and completed every match as Sky Blue’s defense improved dramatically.
Sky Blue management didn’t spot the pattern and left Buczkowski unprotected in the expansion draft. She was picked by the Philadelphia Independence, where she played every minute of the next season, including all 120 minutes of two extra time playoff games. Buczkowski is also the only player to start all 66 games of NWSL’s first three seasons.
She helped Philly to the 2010 and 2011 finals, then Chicago Red Stars to the 2012 WPSL final, and FC Kansas City to its 2014 and 2015 NWSL Championships. Check out what her former coaches had to say about her in interviews with The Equalizer’s Dan Lauletta. Terms like “born winner” get tossed around casually.
So, what’s the key to putting together a legendary underdog story and pulling off the most miraculous string of upsets in American soccer history? Just make sure that your relatively unknown sixth round pick is secretly a generational talent, and make sure that the superstar she’ll be directly lined up against has to leave early for another competition.