In addition to her usual marching orders, Christie Rampone, Sky Blue FC's player/coach, added one more instruction for her players late last week. "Pack for Los Angeles," she said.

It may seem incongruous that Sky Blue, the New Jersey-based club in Women's Professional Soccer, should find itself one win from the championship match after an inaugural season that began with two winless games in a minor league baseball stadium, a five-game trip and the departure of two coaches — Ian Sawyers and Kelly Lindsey.

"No one really believed in us," Rampone said Sunday night in a telephone interview.

She and her players defeated the host Washington Freedom, 2-1, in a playoff game Saturday and were preparing for their semifinal match tonight against the St. Louis Athletica in Fenton, Mo. The winner of that game will go to Carson, Calif., for Saturday's final against the Los Angeles Sol.

As the league's top team during the 20-game regular season, the Sol drew a bye to the title match, which will be televised nationally on Fox Soccer Channel.

Lindsey had been an assistant coach until taking over for Sawyers, who was fired in late May, when the team was 1-4-2. Lindsey stunned the club when she resigned July 29 with 10 days and two games left in the regular season.

"We were still in contention and didn't have time to look for a coach," Rampone, a New Jersey native who is also a longtime defender for the U.S. national team, said of Lindsey's departure. "They asked me and I knew the team needs me, so I took the job without hesitation."Rampone said that her first call was to the coach of the U.S. women's national team, Pia Sundhage, who in an interview last year said that Rampone struck her as a kind of coach on the field. Sundhage was in the stands for Saturday's match.

"On my way home, I was still in shock that day because Kelly had resigned," Rampone said. "The first person I call was Pia for some encouraging words and how to approach the situation. She gave me confidence and said there was nothing to lose. I started to break down some film until I realized that, hey, I don't even know how to edit film."

Sky Blue faced the Freedom, a club it had not beaten in three tries during the season, with renewed belief. Natasha Kai, who has turned into a supersub of sorts as she deals with a shoulder injury, entered the match early in the second half and a minute later scored Sky Blue's first goal. After Washington tied the match, midfielder Yael Averbuch slipped a pass to the Brazilian Francielle (the league's youngest player at 19), who scored on a shot from about 20 yards and sent Sky Blue halfway to California.

Sky Blue has lost to St. Louis three times this year.

"At this point, that doesn't mean anything," Rampone said. "We haven't beaten them, but at the same time they are beatable. We're confident coming off the win. We're focusing our game on how we will attack, and as long as we understand the plan and play our roles, we'll win the game."

UNITED SOCCER LEAGUES: To say the Portland Timbers are flying under the radar would be a soaring understatement. The club, which will join Major League Soccer in 2011 (along with the Vancouver Whitecaps), has not lost a match in the USL First Division, one tier below MLS, since its season-opener on April 25. The first-place Timbers (13-1-9) have gone a league-record 22 games without a loss after a 4-1 win at Rochester on Saturday.

"Right now, we have the right mentality and think that we're unbeatable, capable of winning any game," said Gavin Wilkinson, a New Zealander who is in his third year as the coach and general manager in Portland. "You do want that feeling of arrogance, but only because it comes from the hard work they've put in."

Some of Portland's numbers are quite impressive: The club has recorded 10 shutouts (and has only 12 goals against in 23 games) and has not allowed an opponent to score more than one goal in a game. The Timbers have also scored the most goals (37) in the league. "It's important for us and Vancouver to build assets now, but I believe that a lot of our players right now could feature on an MLS squad," Wilkinson said. "With MLS, there's a bit more depth than in the USL, but if you take four or five players out of an MLS squad, it's pretty competitive with most USL teams."

NOTEBOOK: The final round of playoffs in the UEFA Champions League begins Tuesday, and perhaps the most interesting of the home-and-away sets will be the first leg between Celtic and Arsenal in Glasgow. The 10 playoff winners advance to the tournament's first group stage.

— The committee that is leading the United States' efforts to host the World Cup in 2018 or 2022 has started a Web site,, that features an online petition for fans to sign in support of the effort. ... Three MLS teams — Houston, DC United and Columbus — begin play this week in the group stage of the CONCACAF Champions League. Participation in the tournament will add six games to each team's schedule from Tuesday through Oct. 22.