The first Women's Professional Soccer championship game between the Los Angeles Sol and Sky Blue FC from New Jersey on Saturday will match the new league's most consistent team against its most chaotic.
The Sol (12-3-5) qualified for the final as the host by securing the regular-season championship with three weeks to play. In the process, Los Angeles finished second in goals scored (27) and first in fewest goals allowed (10).
"We found a way to communicate, to play to each others' strengths and help each other be better," said Sol goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc, who leads WPS with 12 shutouts, including eight in the Sol's first nine games.
But Sky Blue FC (7-8-5) had to emerge from last place to qualify for the playoffs by one point. The team went through two coaches before appointing defender Christine Rampone as the interim player-coach with two games left.
Rampone, who represented the United States in three women's World Cups and three Olympics, immediately relieved the strain the players felt.
"They've gone through so much in one year," Rampone said. "If you're worried about making mistakes and putting too much pressure on yourself, we're going to get nowhere. Have fun and the game will dictate itself."
As a result, "the girls were really excited about soccer again," Rampone said. "They're bringing that passion back."
Sky Blue confronts a Sol offense led by Brazil's Marta, FIFA's three-time World Player of the Year and WPS's leading scorer with 10 goals.
"She does things on the field where you're like, 'Did she just do that?'" LeBlanc said. "But her biggest thing is her passion. She always wants to win. It's very contagious. She has that extra gear that many people don't seem to have."
Supporting Marta are midfielders Shannon Boxx and Aya Miyama, one of five WPS players who played every minute this season. Allison Falk and Stephanie Cox lead the defense.
But the Sol will be missing midfielder Camille Abily, who tied for second in WPS scoring with eight goals. Abily is playing for France in the European Championships.
Sky Blue responds with forward Natasha Kai, who leads the team with six goals despite playing with an injured shoulder since May. Midfielders Heather O'Reilly, Kacey White and Yael Averbuch provide offensive help.
Rampone and Keeley Dowling form part of the defense in front of goalkeeper Jenni Branam. But starting defender Anita Asante is playing for England in the European Championships and will miss the WPS final.
Sky Blue advanced to the championship game with playoff victories over Washington and St. Louis, and will play its third game in eight days Saturday.
"It's been a rough week for us," Rampone said. "We're going to have to play our best game. But you can't just go 100 mph with the legs. Playing smart soccer will be our key."