WPS: Something’s missing for women’s league’s second season

Midfielder Shannon Boxx leads a strong St. Louis side.

 

By Scott French

Women’s Professional Soccer’s second season kicks off Saturday, and there’s a lot that’s new: clubs in Atlanta and New England, some exceptional foreign talent and the best of an impressive, top-heavy college draft.

Initially, at least, the focus is on what’s missing. The Los Angeles Sol, the league’s best team for most of the first season and ultimately the WPS runner-up, suspended operations in late January after the league was unable to find new ownership.

WPS took control of the club in November from initial owners Anschutz Entertainment Group, which planned all along to drop out after season one, and Blue Star, LLC, which lacked the financial backing to go alone. Two months of negotiations with a local party fell apart in the "11th hour," reported Commissioner Tonya Antonucci, who hopes the Sol can return to the field in 2011.

The Sol’s players were distributed throughout the league, with big prize Marta going to FC Gold Pride in a bidding process that preceded the Feb. 4 dispersal draft. The Sol’s other big name, holding midfielder Shannon Boxx, went to the Saint Louis Athletica with the first pick in the dispersal draft.

Saint Louis, which under Brazilian coach Jorge Barcellos finished second to the Sol and lost in the semifinals to WPS champ Sky Blue FC, strengthened its roster with several high-profile additions and heads into the new season as title favorite.

Sky Blue’s stunning postseason run was led by U.S. national team captain Christie Rampone, who had taken over as interim coach after Ian Sawyers was dismissed following a physical altercation with forward Natasha Kai and successor Kelly Lindsey resigned abruptly just before the playoffs.

Sky Blue edged the Washington Freedom and Saint Louis to reach the title game, beating the Sol, 1-0, at Home Depot Center on title-game MVP Heather O’Reilly’s 16th-minute goal.

Rampone, it turned out, was pregnant during the playoff run; she gave birth to her second daughter on March 6. Her plan all along was to return to the Sky Blue backline, but she had no interest in continuing as coach; former Finnish national-teamer Pauliina Miettinen, a standout striker for NCAA D2 power Franklin Pierce in the 1980s, has taken charge.

The Atlanta Beat and Philadelphia Independence join the league as the seventh and eighth teams, and they’ve built their rosters through the expansion draft, trades and signing free agents. Atlanta picked up U.S. national-teamer Tobin Heath from North Carolina with the first selection in January’s college draft. Philly’s biggest acquisition was midfielder Lori Lindsey, whose performance for Washington last season resurrected her international career.

Read on for much more, including team-by-team previews, Best 11 selections and predictions

Atlanta’s coach is Irishman Gareth O’Sullivan and Philadelphia’s is Englishman Paul Riley. Both have significant American experience, but their hirings, and that of Miettinen, gives WPS five foreign coaches – Barcellos and Chicago’s Emma Hayes are the others – and just three Americans: Boston’s Tony DiCicco, FC Gold Pride’s Albertin Montoya andWashington’s Jim Gabarra.

Heath, striker Lauren Cheney, who joined Boston from UCLA, and MAC Hermann Trophy winner Kelley O’Hara, a Stanford product with FC Gold Pride, headed what was considered a very strong draft class. Top foreign players to arrive include Japanese forward Mami Yamaguchi (Atlanta), Swedish forwards Kosovare Asslani (Chicago), Norwegian midfielder Solveig Gulbrandsen (FC Gold Pride) and Finnish forward Laura Kalmari (Sky Blue FC).

Washington will play host to Boston in the season opener Saturday night at the Maryland SoccerPlex. Sunday’s games: FC Gold Pride at Saint LouisAtlanta at Philadelphia, andChicago at Sky Blue FC.

The Sky Blue-Chicago game will be shown on Fox Soccer Channel at 6 p.m. ET.

ATLANTA BEAT

2009: Expansion team

Coach: Gareth O’Sullivan

Top players: F Ramona Backmann (Switzerland), M Tobin Heath, F Johanna Rasmussen (Denmark), Mami Yamaguchi (Japan)

From the Sol: M Katie Larkin, M Manya Makoski, M McCall Zerboni

Outlook: The Beat arrives with the same name as its WUSA predecessor, a new stadium and a bit of talent, led by former Florida State All-American Mami Yamaguchi, the 2007 MAC Hermann Trophy winner. Irish coach Gareth O’Sullivan guided Memphis’ ChristianBrothers University to the 2002 NCAA Division II women’s title. Top draft pick (from North Carolina) Tobin Heath’s health is a concern.

Home field: Kennesaw State University soccer stadium, KennesawGa.

BOSTON BREAKERS

2009: 7-9-4, 25 points (fifth place)

Coach: Tony DiCicco

Top players: F Lauren Cheney, D Amy LePeilbet, M Kristine Lilly, M Leslie Osborne, M/F Kelly Smith (England)

From the Sol: D Stephanie Cox, M Liz Bogus

Outlook: The reconstituted Breakers, one of two returning teams from the WUSA, underachieved last year, but former U.S. women’s national team coach Tony DiCicco has brought in some top players, highlighted by central midfielder Leslie Osborne and UCLA striker Lauren Cheney. A healthy Kelly Smith would take Boston a long way.

Home field: Harvard Stadium, Boston

CHICAGO RED STARS

2009: 5-10-5, 20 points (sixth place)

Coach: Emma Hayes

Top players: F Kosovare Asslani (Sweden), Cristiane (Brazil), M Formiga (Brazil), D Kate Markgraf

From the Sol: F Casey Nogueira

Outlook: The Red Stars might have been the most disappointing first-year team, struggling to score goals despite the presences of Cristiane and Lindsay Tarpley. Cristiane is fit (unlike last year), Tarpley is gone (to Saint Louis) and Kate Markgraf arrives after skipping the first season to have twins, but the big acquisition is midfielder Formiga, FC Gold Pride’s best player in season one.

Home field: Toyola ParkBridgeviewIll.

FC GOLD PRIDE

2009: 4-10-6, 18 points (seventh place)

Coach: Albertin Montoya

Top players: G Nicole Barnhart, M Solveig Gulbrandsen (Norway), F Christine Sinclair (Canada)

From the Sol: M Camille Abily (France), F/M Kiki Bosio, F Marta (Brazil)

Outlook: The Bay Area’s team got the biggest prize in the dispersal of Sol players, outbidding its rivals for MVP and scoring champ Marta (which forced the release of Formiga, strictly a budget decision). Also coming from L.A.: Camille Abily, who was L.A.’s glue player. If Gold Pride can get more from Christine Sinclair, it could go far.

Home fields: Castro Valley Athletic Stadium, Castro ValleyCalif.; Pioneer Stadium,HaywardCalif.

PHILADELPHIA INDEPENDENCE

2009: Expansion team

Coach: Paul Riley

Top players: M Lori Lindsey, D Heather Mitts, F Amy Rodriguez, F Caroline Seger (Sweden)

From the Sol: D Allison Falk, G Val Henderson, D Estelle Johnson, G Karina LeBlanc (Canada), F Lyndsey Patterson

Outlook: The expansion Independence has some promise, especially with the pickups of Lori Lindsey, WPS’s second-best holding midfielder in year one, Swedish striker Caroline Seger and breakout defensive star Allison Falk. English coach Paul Riley, who played atAdelphi University, hopes to prod Amy Rodriguez to the next level.

Home field: John A. Farrell Stadium, West ChesterPa.

SAINT LOUIS ATHLETICA

2009: 10-6-4, 34 points (second place; lost in semifinal)

Coach: Jorge Barcellos

Top players: F Eniola Aluko, M/D Lori Chalupny, M Daniela (Brazil), D Tina Ellertson, G Hope Solo, F/M Lindsay Tarpley

From the Sol: M Shannon Boxx, M Tina DiMartino, M Aya Miyama (Japan)

Outlook: Jorge Barcellos’ side played perhaps the nicest soccer in year one, and the additions of midfielders Shannon Boxx and Aya Miyama from the Sol and of forward Lindsay Tarpley and the return of Daniela, both coming off knee injuries, has greatly improved the roster. Much will be expected from first-year standouts Hope Solo, Tina Ellertson and Eniola Aluko, but how well Lori Chalupny can overcome concussion syndrome may determine Athletica’s fate.

Home field: Anheuser-Busch Soccer ParkFentonMo.

SKY BLUE FC

2009: 7-8-5, 26 points (fourth place, 3-0-0 in playoffs to win WPS title)

Coach: Pauliina Miettinen

Top players: D Anita Asante (England), F Natasha Kai, F Laura Kalmari (Finland), M Carli Lloyd, M Heather O’Reilly, D Christie Rampone

From the Sol: M/F Kiersten Dallstream

Outlook: New Jersey’s club stumbled through coaching nightmares much of the first season, then took off in the postseason behind the leadership of coach/captain/central defender Christie Rampone, who led Sky Blue to the first WPS championship. How quickly she returns to form from the birth of her second daughter will be important, and the addition of two Finns – coach Pauliina Miettinen, who led Franklin Pierce to three NCAA Division II titles, and forward Laura Kalmari are steps in the right direction.

Home field: Yurcak Field, PiscatawayN.J.

WASHINGTON FREEDOM

2009: 8-7-5, 29 points (third place, lost in quarterfinal)

Coach: Jim Gabarra

Top players: M Sonia Bompastor (France), F Lene Mykjaland (Norway), M Homare Sawa (Japan), F Abby Wambach, D Catherine Whitehill

From the Sol: D/M/F Brittany Bock

Outlook: The Freedom, survivors from the WUSA, has WPS’s most productive attack last year, and Abby Wambach, coming off a broken leg, didn’t find her form until the end of the season. She has the ability to dominate in this league, and how well she connects with Sonia Bompastor, Homare Sawa, Lisa De Vanna and Norwegian newcomer Lene Mykajaland will be telling.

Home fields: Maryland SoccerPlex, GermantownMd.; RFK Stadium, Washington

ALL-WPS PRESEASON TEAM

G: Hope Solo (Saint Louis)

D: Anita Asante (Sky Blue FC)

D: Tina Ellerton (Saint Louis)

D: Amy LePeilbet (Boston)

M: Camille Abily (FC Gold Pride)

M: Sonia Bompastor (Washington)

M: Shannon Boxx (Saint Louis)

M: Heather O’Reilly (Sky Blue FC)

F: Cristiane (Chicago)

F: Marta (FC Gold Pride)

F: Abby Wambach (Washington)

MVP: Abby Wambach (Washington)

Rookie of the Year: Lauren Cheney (Boston)

Coach of the Year: Jorge Barcellos (Saint Louis)

Defensive Player of the Year: Tina Ellertson (Saint Louis)

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH

1          Saint Louis Athletica

2          Boston Breakers

3          Sky Blue FC

4          Washington Freedom

5          Chicago Red Stars

6          FC Gold Pride

7          Philadelphia Independence

8          Atlanta Beat

Playoffs

Quarterfinal: Sky Blue FC over Washington

Semifinal: Sky Blue FC over Boston

Final: Saint Louis over Sky Blue FC

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