Which teams will reach WPS playoffs?
With just about one quarter of the Women's Professional Soccer season remaining, all seven teams are still in the hunt for the league's four playoff spots. FC Gold Pride can clinch the regular season title soon, which will automatically advance them to the title game (and give them hosting duties for the final) in WPS' unique playoff format. The team that finishes second will advance to the Super Semifinal and host the winner of the No. 3-vs.-No. 4 playoff game.
Here's a look at the current WPS standings and each team's biggest concerns as the playoffs approach.
First place: FC Gold Pride (12-3-3, 39 points)
FC Gold Pride has been comfortably in first for weeks now and is unlikely to be caught. However, its past two games -- both 0-0 draws -- are concerning; FC Gold Pride's dominant offense has gone dormant. Can Marta and Christine Sinclair bring it back? The Los Angeles Sol jumped out to a big lead in 2009 and easily wrapped up the top spot early. But with nothing to play for, the team sputtered down the stretch. FC Gold Pride has three former Sol players in the starting lineup (Shannon Boxx, Camille Abily and Marta), so they know the importance of playing well heading into the playoffs.
Second place: Philadelphia Independence (8-6-4, 28 points)
With second place on the line Sunday, the Philadelphia Independence survived a strong second half performance from the Boston Breakers to hold on to a 2-2 tie in one of the best games of the season. But while Philadelphia is still second place, the Breakers are just two points back of the Independence. The two teams will meet for the last time in the regular season on Aug. 29 in Philadelphia and second place will likely be wrapped up in that match. Amy Rodriguez (11 goals, 4 assists) has been kept off the score sheet in her last two games. Philadelphia will need her to continue to find the back of the net to keep ahead of Boston.
Third place: Boston Breakers (7-6-5, 26 points)
The Boston Breakers continue to be the hottest team in the league. Since the calendar turned to July, the team is 6-1-1 and has surged into third place after a miserable start to the season. Kelly Smith has put her name back in the MVP race, scoring seven goals and three assists over those eight games. Having Smith, who was the best player in the league until she got hurt in May 2009, play her best soccer will make the Breakers a tough team to beat down the stretch.
Boston will be tested in its final games of the season: four straight on the road (with a "home" game in New Britain, Conn., right before its road swing). Boston's last game of the season is in New Jersey against Sky Blue FC, a team it has never beaten (0-4-2).
Fourth place: Chicago Red Stars (5-8-6, 21 points) and Sky Blue FC (6-8-3, 21 points)
The Chicago Red Stars are tied for the fourth and final playoff spot with Sky Blue FC, but have played two more games, so Chicago needs help to hold onto its spot. The team's season ends favorably with three straight home games. Sky Blue FC, meanwhile, will face big tests on Aug. 15 in Boston against the red-hot Breakers and Aug. 22 as it hosts Philadelphia. The Independence routed Sky Blue FC 4-1 the last two times they've met.
Sixth place: Washington Freedom (5-8-5, 20 points)
The Washington Freedom finally snapped its 10-game winless streak with a 2-0 win over Philadelphia last week, but need to keep the momentum going to get back into the playoff hunt. Freedom GM Mark Washo said Tuesday that coach Jim Gabarra will keep his job for the remainder of the season, but announced that former Red Stars coach Emma Hayes will be brought in as a soccer consultant. The Freedom offense has been missing Australian international Lisa DeVanna (broken leg) all season and their defense, just like last year, has given up the most goals in the league. Is it too late to turn things around? Their biggest game is Aug. 14 at FC Gold Pride, who could be in a position then to clinch the regular season title with a win over the Freedom.
Seventh place: Atlanta Beat (4-9-5, 17 points)
The Atlanta Beat are in last place with 17 points, but are just four points back of the final playoff spot. It's been a tough road for the Beat, and adding six players from Saint Louis after the Athletica folded has made it difficult for the team to discover the right chemistry on the field.
Beat midfielder Lori Chalupny is confident in an offense that boasts Eniola Aluko, Ramona Bachmann and Monica Ocampo among its forwards, but has yet to play many games together. "Those are quality players," Chalupny said. "I feel like we're pretty deep at the forward position. It's just about getting some chemistry, but it's coming along."
The Beat's next four games are critical: a road trip to face the Independence and Breakers followed by home meetings with FC Gold Pride and Boston. If Atlanta can string something together against the league's three top teams, it could shake up the standings quite a bit. A playoff spot may be too much to hope for, but a solid finish to the season and a role as spoiler would give the Beat positive momentum heading into 2011.
Jacqueline Purdy covers women's soccer for ESPN.com. She also is an editor for ESPNRadio.com. She can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com or on twitter at twitter.com/jacquelinepurdy.