WPS Season PreviewBy: phil | March 14th, 2011
Climb aboard for The Offsideâ€™s 2011 Womenâ€™s Professional Soccer pre-season preview, as we sift through the sands of the league and try to separate the men from the boys.
Figuratively, of course.
With the dissolution of FC Gold Pride, last yearâ€™s champions, the WPS field is wide-open this year.Â Fans of every team feel like they have a decent shot to make a run to the title.Â The WPS official siteâ€™s playoff pageÂ demonstrates the leagueâ€™s unique (and pretty cool, I think) format – 4 of the 6 teams make the playoffs.Â In Round 1, the 3rd and 4th ranked teams play each other, and the winner advances to Round 2, to play the 2nd ranked team.Â The winner of this match then advances to the Championship game against the regular season champ.Â Kind of unusual, but probably the best you can do with a 6-team league.Â So the top 4 teams will make the playoffs, with the second-best team getting a bye, and the regular season champ getting a â€śSuper-Byeâ€ť (we could also say â€śtwo bye weeksâ€ť or â€śa double bye,â€ť but I like â€śSuper-Byeâ€ť better).
Our team-by-team analysis proceeds with the understanding that 4 of the 6 get playoff spots:
The Beat finished the 2010 season in last place, with only 5 wins against 13 losses and 6 draws.Â They faded especially hard down the stretch, winning only a single game of their last 9.Â
But the Beat might be the leagueâ€™s most improved organization in 2011, for two reasons: first, they picked up Cat Whitehill, the veteran defender who has starred with Washington and with the U.S. Womenâ€™s National Team.Â She figures to bring huge improvements to a team that was last in the league in defense last year.
Second, the Beat had a great draft.Â They snagged Kylie Wright out of UCLA and Meghan Lenczyk of UVA with their first two picks.Â Wright is a versatile player who can play defense and midfield and who was a first-team All PAC-10 selection last year, while Lenczyk is an explosive scorer who should be able to step in and contribute right away.
Prediction: Atlanta looks to be a much-improved side that should contend.Â They might be a year away from a championship run, but if the rookies can learn on the fly, look out.
The Breakers finished last year as regular season runners-up, with a record of 10 wins, 8 losses, and 6 draws.Â They were knocked out of the playoffs by Philadelphia in something of an upset, but the Breakers remain a dangerous force.Â Leading scorer Kelly Smith is a veteran of the English game, where she scored 73 goals in 4 seasons with Arsenal Ladies.Â Boston was also the only club other than (now defunct) FC Gold Pride to rank in top 3 in both scoring and defense last year.
Nonetheless, it occasionally feels like something is a little off with this team.Â Counting the playoff loss to Philadelphia, they scored only a single goal in their final 3 games, and won none of them.Â They do struggle to come up with clutch scoring when itâ€™s really needed.Â They also decided to go the small-conference route with their first pick in the draft, grabbing Keelin Winters of the University of Portland.Â The Breakers figure to remain a solid, well-rounded club without a real killer instinct.
Prediction: they might have enough skill and depth to grind out a playoff spot, but I canâ€™t see Boston winning it all.Â
The Indies made a surprising run to the final last year, fighting their way to a playoff spot with a victory in the last week of the season, then dropping Washington and Boston back-to-back.Â But their 4-0 demolition at the hands of FC Gold Pride in the final left no doubt as to who was the best team in the league.Â Philadelphia plays a fast-paced game thatâ€™s great fun for the fans; luckily, they have the skill players on offense to pull it off.Â Defensively, they can be exposed (second-worst goals allowed last year, culminating in the championship game, where they were ripped to shreds), but I still think they have the speed and firepower to contend in 2011.Â
Philly is led by Amy Rodriguez, the 24-year old star of the Womenâ€™s national team who scored 12 WPS goals last year.Â They also have Natasha Kai, who beat out all competition to become worldâ€™s best-known heavily-tattooed Hawaiian-Filipino Mormon professional womenâ€™s soccer player.Â And we predict she wonâ€™t relinquish that title easily.
Prediction: probably one of the 2 or 3 best teams in the league.Â If the defense can improve, Philadelphia is a contender.
SKY BLUE FC
The Blues barely missed the playoffs last year after winning the championship in 2009.Â Their defense is solid, and goalie Karen Bardsley had 5 shutouts last year.Â Hometown hero Heather Oâ€™Reilly, veteran of two Olympics and one Womenâ€™s World Cup, leads the midfield.Â The club has a fairly dedicated fan base and a number of players with experience.
So whatâ€™s the problem in Piscataway?Â Basically, not enough goals.Â Sky Blue had the weakest attack in the league last year, scoring only 20 goals in 24 games.Â A stretch in July when the club went 3 and a half games without scoring a goal pretty much put an end to their season.Â This year, Sky Blue hopes to resurrect the offense, but it promises to be a long task, especially as the club had only one pick in this winterâ€™s draft, which came in the last round.
Prediction: Sky Blue appears to be in need of rebuild.Â This club probably doesnâ€™t have the firepower to contend.
Yeah, I know â€¦ this.Â Â But we arenâ€™t calling them majic Talk whatever until we see it on their shirts.Â
Washington will continue to rely on Abby Wambach.Â The iconic forward suffered through injuries and a little rust last year, but still managed 13 goals.Â Despite some miles, Abby can absolutely terrorize defenses when sheâ€™s healthy and locked in.Â The Freedom will also lean on Becky Sauerbrunn, the reliable defender who anchors the back line for the Womenâ€™s National Team.Â Although the club still has talent, losing your coach, one of your best players (Cat Whitehill – see above), home city and team name all in one off season is a lot to overcome.
Prediction: too much turmoil.Â Iâ€™ll be rooting for them, but this off-seasonâ€™s chaos might be too big a hill to climb.
WESTERN NY FLASH
This yearâ€™s expansion team (actually a promoted team) pulled off a major coup when they snagged Marta, the Brazilian 5-time FIFA Womenâ€™s Player of the Year.Â Almost impossibly, Marta has gotten better since her destruction of Team USA in the 2007 Womenâ€™s World Cup.Â She led FC Gold Pride to the title last year, notching a goal and 2 assists in the triumph over Philadelphia in the final.
Prediction: you can chalk it up to Marta or call it beginnerâ€™s luck, but I think the Flash are going to be hoisting the championship trophy this year.
The teams have already started playing pre-season exhibition games, and weâ€™re less than 4 weeks away from opening night.Â Keep in mind that the WPS has a national TV deal this year with Fox Soccer Channel, who will be airing games every Sunday at 6 PM.Â So set your TiVos, if youâ€™re so inclined.Â And join us next week as we check up on the status of the Washington Freedom and look at this summerâ€™s schedule.