By DAN LAULETTA
The second season of Women's Professional Soccer kicks off this weekend with all eight teams in action, including Sunday’s all-expansion battle between the Atlanta Beat and Philadelphia Independence.
The league is awash with change this season, having had to contract the Los Angeles Sol when negotiations with a new ownership group fell through at the last minute. The team’s original owner, Anschutz Entertainment Group, pulled out late last year after fulfilling its agreement to help launch the club. The league remains committed to Los Angeles, which is among several cities—mostly west of the Rocky Mountains—being considered for future expansion.
The schedule of games was increased from 20 to 24 this year and will extend to September 26, more than a month later than last season. The league returns its unique playoff format where the team with the best regular season record receives passage to the final and hosts the game. Meanwhile, the fourth-place side opens the playoffs away to the third place side with the winner traveling to play the second-place club for the right to challenge the regular season champions. Last year, Sky Blue FC snuck into the playoffs when the Boston Breakers lost the final game of the season, then won in Washington, St Louis, and Los Angeles to claim an unlikely title.
Off the field, things are looking up despite the loss of the league’s most prominent club. Season ticket sales are reported as being up 20% among the six returning teams and sponsorships up 150% at the club level. Four teams have secured jersey sponsors and Citi has joined as a leaguewide sponsor and will have jersey representation. The crown jewel of off-the-field progress will arrive May 9 when the Beat open a women’s specific soccer stadium built in conjunction with Kennesaw State University.
Now let’s take a look at the league’s eight teams, in order of how we think they’ll finish:
WPS Pre-Season Rankings
1. SKY BLUE FC
Last season: 7-8-5, 26 points (4th place)
Playoffs: defeated Washington Freedom, 2-1; defeated Saint Louis Athletica, 1-0; defeated Los Angeles Sol, 1-0
Head Coach: Pauliina Miettinen (1st season)
Outlook: The league champions lost more times than they won last season, but don’t let that fool you. They’re very good. It took most of last season to realize that Yael Averbuch could control the midfield as a defensive mid and that Kacey White’s ability to hold up the ball allowed her teammates time to play from more advantageous positions. Leading scorer Tasha Kai might be better served as a secondary scorer or super sub, luxuries she may have now that Europeans Jessica Landstrom and Laura Kalmari have joined up. Kai also had off-season shoulder surgery that should make her more durable.
First-round draft pick Brittany Taylor recently spent time with the National Team which should be ample training to help fill an early void in the back. Christie Rampone was lauded for playing the end of last season pregnant, but now must work herself back to fitness before playing again—likely some time in June. Rampone’s central defense partner, Anita Asante, hurt her knee over the winter and is also targeting a June return.
2. SAINT LOUIS ATHLETICA
Last season: 10-6-4, 34 points (2nd place)
Playoffs: lost to Sky Blue FC, 1-0
Head Coach: Jorge Barcellos (2nd season)
Outlook: Athletica are loaded. The club made little noise on draft day having traded away its first round pick last season for Kendall Fletcher and Christie Welsh. Two weeks later they traded up to acquire Shannon Boxx with the first pick in the LA Sol dispersal draft, and the ripple effects of drafting an American allowed them to grab Aya Miyama with the eighth pick.
If Lori Chalupny returns from a self-imposed absence to deal with concussion symptoms (she has been with the team throughout training camp), it will be difficult for any team to ever outplay Athletica in midfield. However, Boxx, Miyama, and Chalupny are not known for scoring goals so the front line will shoulder much of that load.
The back four is also a question mark as Elise Weber slides in to take over for Kia McNeill, traded as part of the Boxx deal. WPS Goalkeeper of the Year Hope Solo is capable to cleaning up many defensive miscues. The last team to score a goal and win a game in 2009 is unlikely to face the same uphill climb this time around.
3. WASHINGTON FREEDOM
Last season: 8-7-5, 29 points (3rd place)
Playoffs: lost to Sky Blue FC, 2-1
Head Coach: Jim Gabarra (2nd season)
Outlook: WUSA fans no doubt sense the similarities between this second year squad and the one that Jim Gabarra led from seventh place in 2001 to the final in 2002 (and the title in 2003.) The team leaked goals at the back last season while nursing a young squad, then stood pat with its core while everyone else made bigger overhauls.
Aside from losing Lori Lindsey to the expansion draft, the Freedom return almost entirely in tact. And unlike last year when Abby Wambach and Cat Whitehill were in the final stages of major rehab and goalkeeper Erin McLeod was stuck in Canada with Visa issues, everyone came to camp this year fit and ready to go. The only exception was Britttany Bock, a dispersal draft pick still recovering from foot surgery.
The Freedom scored 32 goals last season to lead the league even though Wambach slumped for more than half the season. That won’t be the problem. Whether or not young defenders like Alex Singer and Nikki Marshall can shoulder the load in back will be the deciding factor as to how far the Freedom get in ’10.
4. FC GOLD PRIDE
Last season: 4-10-6, 18 points (7th place)
Playoffs: did not qualify
Head Coach: Albertin Montoya (2nd season)
Outlook: No team enters 2010 with as much pressure as FC Gold Pride. After pulling up the rear of the table while scoring more than two goals only twice and pulling in low attendance figures, they club will play in a new stadium (Pioneer Stadium on the campus of California State University; the club will start the season at Castro Valley High School while refurbishments are made at Pioneer) and sport a slew of new faces. The most notable is Marta, who will be joined by Sol teammate Camille Abily, Hermann winner Kelley O’Hara, and center back Candace Chapman.
FC Gold Pride also drafted well regarded Ali Riley and Becky Edwards and return Christine Sinclair Tiffeny Milbrett, who should be much better off as a substitute. Kandace Wilson is back after a horrifying hip injury. Wilson gets forward as well as any outside back in WPS.
5. CHICAGO RED STARS
Last season: 5-10-5, 20 points (6th place)
Playoffs: did not qualify
Head Coach: Emma Hayes (2nd season)
Outlook: The Red Stars are hoping that revamping their backline will lead to an improved showing from their attacking players. Losing Kate Markgraf to maternity leave for the 2009 season seemed unfair at the time, but now it’s like they’re getting a free player who will be among the league’s best if she can recover her pre-pregnancy form (something her fellow National Teamers have a strong track record of doing.) First round pick Whitney Engen will also add some punch whether she ends up partnering with Markgraf or at one of the outside slots.
Up front, Lindsey Tarpley and Carli Lloyd are gone while internationals Kosovare Asllani and Katie Chapman are in. Brittany Klein was perhaps the most underrated WPS player in 2009 and her distribution will be key in improving on an 18 goal in 20 game offense.
Goalkeeper Caroline Jonsson was released when the schedule was extended to interfere with class work in Sweden, and the club took a leap of faith by trading Tarpley to Saint Louis for talented but mostly untested Jillian Loyden.
6. BOSTON BREAKERS
Last season: 7-9-4, 25 points (5th place)
Playoffs: did not qualify
Head Coach: Tony DiCicco (2nd season)
Outlook: Simply put, if Kelly Smith does not stay healthy and score goals the Breakers are in for a long season. If she does, it should allow Lauren Cheney, Tiffany Weimer, and Laura Del Rio to see more of the ball, and then just maybe things will click and the Breakers will be the juggernaut we all thought they would be last season. Leslie Osborne was signed as a free agent and will replaced the retired Angela Hucles. In back the club lost Heather Mitts to free agency and then fell into her left back replacement when the Sol folded and Stephanie Cox was available in the dispersal draft. Along with fixing the offense, the Breakers’ other off-season project was finding a steady central defense partner for WPS Defender of the Year Amy LePeilbet. Kasey Moore had the early track on the starting role but rookie Jordan Angeli also enjoyed a strong pre-season. Goalkeeping is a question mark. Look for Alyssa Naeher, the only keeper drafted in the first round, to push incumbent Ali Lipsher. As for Smith she undertook an aggressive strengthening regimen in an attempt to keep her knees healthy. The Breakers sure hope it works.
7. ATLANTA BEAT
Last season: Expansion Team
Head Coach: Gareth O’Sullivan (1st season)
Outlook: The Beat held all the cards on draft day and eventually used the No.1 overall pick on Tobin Heath. The North Carolina midfielder proceeded to miss much of training camp battling a stomach ailment so her early contributions could be minimized.
The goal output will rest almost entirely on the shoulders of internationals and the Beat’s prized pick in the international draft was 19-year old Ramona Bachmann. Monica Ocampo, Johanna Rasmussen, Shelley Thompson, and Mami Yamaguchi will also be called on to contribute on the scoresheet.
Defense and goalkeeping could be an adventure. Half of the starting backline will be recent converts to their position and highly touted goalkeeper Allison Whitworth won once in four starts for FC Gold Pride. The Beat seem to be doing things wisely, but it figures to take some developmental time before they are ready to compete.
8. Philadelphia Independence
Last season: Expansion Team
Head Coach: Paul Riley (1st season)
Outlook: The Independence were aggressive early, acquiring Allison Falk, Val Henderson, and Amy Rodriguez through trades and Heather Mitts on the free agent market. They were subsequently quiet on draft day and dispersal draft choice Karina LeBlanc is an upgrade over Henderson (who backed up LeBlanc in goal with the Sol last season) but makes it seem like they overpaid in the Henderson deal.
Other clever acquisitions include Lori Lindsey and Jen Buczkowski in the expansion draft. The former has recently made some inroads with the National Team and was strictly a victim of numbers when the Freedom left her unprotected. The latter might wind up in the midfield, but she was instrumental in Sky Blue’s title run when she filled in for Anita Asante in the back during the playoffs.
The Independence are high on Caroline Seger and Lianne Sanderson. Like their expansion sisters to the south, international players will have a big say in how successful they are out of the chute.