The first champion of an unlikely league had an even less plausible rise to the top.
Sky Blue FC won the Women's Professional Soccer title on Saturday by beating the Los Angeles Sol 1-0 in the championship game. The club from New Jersey nearly didn't make the playoffs after its second coach resigned with two games remaining in the season.
Christie Rampone took over as player-coach in late July when Kelly Lindsey resigned one day before practice.
Now she and the nearly two dozen women she played alongside since March are champions of the United States' second try at a women's soccer league _ launched in a worldwide recession _ after the first one lasted only three seasons.
"We've been through a lot this year," Rampone said. "But this team stuck together," Rampone said. "Our goal coming into the playoffs was making sure we had each others' backs and playing with no pressure."
Two months before Lindsey resigned, Sky Blue suspended, then fired its first coach, Ian Sawyers _ who led the San Jose CyberRays to the first title of the Women's United Soccer Association in 2001.
Sky Blue president Thomas Hofstetter said he became concerned early in the season over how Sawyers treated staffers and players.
Without offering specifics, Hofstetter said he feared the club was becoming an unpleasant work environment.
Under Lindsey, who was promoted from assistant, Sky Blue went 5-4-3 to climb into playoff contention.
General manager Gerry Marrone _ also a replacement because Sawyers began the season in that role _ said that on the morning Lindsey resigned, he suspended assistant coach Joe Dorini. He didn't disclose the nature of the violation.
Oh, and two weeks before she had to take over as player-coach, Rampone had surgery for a ruptured ovarian cyst.
After all that, winning seemed almost a simple matter: Heather O'Reilly scored in the 16th minute, Los Angeles got a red card 11 minutes later and Sky Blue hung on for a 1-0 win.
"The fibers of this team are so close and so tight that nothing was going to break us," O'Reilly said.
Sky Blue started the season with only one win in its first seven games, squeaked into the playoffs and then won three games in eight days.
The Sol came in as regular-season champs, with scoring leader Marta and the stingiest defense in the league. It wasn't enough.
"Does this hurt?" Sol midfielder Shannon Boxx asked rhetorically. "Yeah. It hurts a lot."
In the 16th minute, Natasha Kai's glancing header off Keeley Dowling's right-wing cross fell to O'Reilly, whose 8-yard shot deflected off diving Sol goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc.
"Natasha is well-known for headers in the box," O'Reilly said. "I was hanging out at the back post and seeing if Tasha was going to get anything out of it. She got up well and got a good flick on it, and the ball landed to me in front of the goal."
Defender Allison Falk was sent off for tripping Kai from behind in the 27th minute.
"We had to change everything early," LeBlanc said. "It's a tough call but in the second half, we played our hearts out."
The Sol took seven of their eight shots in the second half and forced goalkeeper Jenni Branam to make big plays late.
In the 84th, Branam leaped to deflect Marta's 21-yard free kick as Boxx charged forward. One minute later, Branam fell to her knees to stop Boxx's 22-yard shot and Lyndsey Patterson's attempt to convert the rebound.
"Had we gotten a goal," Sol coach Abner Rogers said, "I think we would have won the game."
Branam finished with four saves in her second consecutive playoff shutout.
"We're a team of hard workers," Rampone said. "Battling back from last place just to get into the playoffs really did show the character and the fight we had."