WPS's third season opens Saturday
Women's Professional Soccer's third season kicks off live on FOX Soccer Sunday April 10 as Sky Blue FC host the Philadelphia Independence at 6 p.m. EDT.
It is a transitional season for a league that endured tough times last year. The league office has gone through several downsizings and now has a CEO/lawyer, Anne-Marie Eileraas, in place of its founding commissioner/entrepreneur, Tonya Antonucci. The league is also down to a bare-bones six teams - losing four of the original seven teams.
April's WPS action on FOX Soccer Channel:
- April 10: Sky Blue FC vs. Philadelphia Independence
- April 17: Boston Breakers vs. Western New York Flash
- April 24: Atlanta Beat vs. Western New York Flash
This has resulted in two contrasting offseason story lines: one that saw the suspension of the Chicago Red Stars from play for the season and the movement of the former Washington Freedom to South Florida, where they will play as magicjack. It has also meant the creation of what looks to be a blockbuster new team, the Western New York Flash, rising from the second-tier W-League's Buffalo Flash.
And now, with the Women's World Cup set to turn the spotlight onto women's soccer, WPS hopes the Flash, anchored by perennial FIFA player of the year Marta, can help take the league in a new direction.
While some MLS expansion teams have been successful right out of the gate, no American expansion team has ever had a player with Marta's game-changing ability. Her two previous WPS teams have run away with the regular-season standings, and she led FC Gold Pride to victory in the 2010 championship game. Her presence alone makes Western New York dangerous; the rest of the free-agent signings make them contenders, if not favorites.
In a busy off-season, the Flash picked over defunct champion FC Gold Pride's roster to add rookie of the year Ali Riley, defensive anchor Candace Chapman, reliable scorer Christine Sinclair. The Flash also had the top WPS draft pick, selecting U.S. phenom Alex Morgan.
Coach Aaran Lines, who played for New Zealand and the Rochester Rhinos, led the Flash to the W-League title last year, and he's once again juggling an unusual role. While Riley is away with New Zealand's women's team, one of his options to fill her spot will be Alex Sahlen, who also is the team president — and Lines' wife.
"Nothing changes," Lines said. "We were in the W-League for two years with the Buffalo Flash in the same situation. I'm very clear and professional about handling that within the squad. She's treated like any other player that's trying to earn a spot in our 11."
The only drawback for the league may be its schedule. WPS, like MLS last year, will take a short break during the Women's World Cup. But that won't cover the whole tournament, the pre-Cup friendlies and training. In addition, several teams will be sharing players with the U.S. women's national team throughout the season, creating a precarious balance between a vital season for WPS' long-term viability and the USA's quest to regain the World Cup it hasn't won since 1999.
"This whole season is going to be players in and out," Riley says. "It's good for the team that's going to be together for most of the time to practice a lot together now."
"There are many different approaches to putting together a competitive team," Eileraas adds. "This year it could be that the team that gels as a unit the fastest could have a real edge over other teams with rosters more affected by call-ups."
As a whole, the league has far fewer World Cup-bound internationals than it had last year, with Homare Sawa, Aya Miyama, Sonia Bompastor and Camille Abily among the players spending the summer closer to home. That's a mixed blessing for WPS, weakening its claim as the world's strongest women's soccer league but causing fewer roster conflicts this season.
In fact, one of last year's expansion teams, Atlanta, has taken a novel approach to dealing with World Cup absences: avoiding World Cup players altogether. The inexperienced Beat have no international stars, and Carli Lloyd is the only Beat player on the U.S. roster for an April 2 friendly in London. Heather Mitts, Cat Whitehill and Lori Chalupny may challenge to rejoin the U.S. squad this summer, with Chalupny remaining in a strange limbo of being medically cleared to play in WPS but not for internationals by U.S. Soccer.
The Philadelphia Independence, league finalists in their debut season last year, have changed stadiums but not much else. Lori Lindsey, whose WPS play has earned her a spot in the U.S. roster pool, drives the attack with Amy Rodriguez. Injury-plagued forward Tasha Kai joins the team, as does U.S. backup goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart.
Sky Blue FC (New Jersey) hired coach Jim Gabarra, who had been with the Freedom since the WUSA started in 2001. He has overhauled the roster with a few refugees from the Beat (Tobin Heath, Eniola Aluko) joining Spanish signing Adriana and Sky Blue stalwart Heather O'Reilly.
The Boston Breakers, along with Sky Blue the only teams still in the same metro area since the league's 2009 debut, made few changes, keeping intact the core of English star Kelly Smith, Lauren Cheney and Amy LePeilbet. Defender Rachel Buehler joins from Gold Pride, while ageless midfielder Kristine Lilly has finally retired.
And then there's new owner Dan Borislow and magicjack. In one of the more compelling off-season storylines, Borislow bought a majority stake in the Washington Freedom from John and Maureen Hendricks, founders of the old WUSA of the early 2000s and owners who had kept the Freedom club intact for five years between top-flight U.S. leagues.
Borislow has built a strong team, keeping Abby Wambach from the Freedom roster and adding several cornerstones of the U.S. national team – goalkeeper Hope Solo, defender Christie Rampone and midfielder Shannon Boxx.
What he has not done is hired a front office staff or publicized any of his efforts, including the official move to South Florida. The team will play at Florida Atlantic University, but all other information is sparse.
WPS CEO Eileraas says magicjack is going through a natural learning curve.
"The team has gotten off to a bit of a late start, but they are working with an experienced organization in Florida Atlantic University that, coupled with the support of the league and other WPS owners, will enable them to catch up," Eileraas says.
Perhaps this is but new twist on stealth marketing: The league's small but devoted pack of bloggers, reporters and fans have followed each turn in the magicJack saga with rabid intensity.
Eileraas hopes WPS will emerge from this transitional season with momentum from the World Cup and a couple more teams. She says the league has interest on the West Coast, and original team Chicago hopes to return after taking 2011 off.
"The developments at the end of last season were tough, but the opportunity to be working in soccer, especially in this World Cup year, is one that I have been really enjoying," Eileraas says. "There is so much excitement and passion with the game and the opportunities it creates for players and fans."
WPS live on FOX Soccer - 2011 broadcast schedule
(All times EDT, home team listed first)
|April 10||Sky Blue FC vs. Philadelphia Independence||6 p.m.|
|April 17||Boston Breakers vs. Western New York Flash||6 p.m.|
|April 24||Atlanta Beat vs. Western New York Flash||6 p.m.|
|May 1||Boston Breakers vs. Sky Blue FC||6 p.m.|
|May 8||Philadelphia Independence vs. Boston Breakers||6 p.m.|
|May 15||Atlanta Beat vs. Philadelphia Independence||6 p.m.|
|May 22||Western New York Flash vs. magicJack||7 p.m.|
|May 29||Philadelphia Independence vs. Western New York Flash||6 p.m.|
|June 5||Boston Breakers vs. magicJack||6 p.m.|
|June 12||Western New York Flash vs. Philadelphia Independence||6 p.m.|
|June 19||Atlanta Beat vs. Boston Breakers||TBD|
|June 26 - July 3: World Cup 2011 Break|
|July 10||Boston Breakers vs. Atlanta Beat||6 p.m.|
|July 17||Sky Blue FC vs. Western New York Flash||6 p.m.|
|July 24||Boston Breakers vs. Western New York Flash||6 p.m.|
|July 31||Philadelphia Independence vs. Atlanta Beat||6 p.m.|
|August 7||Philadelphia Independence vs. Sky Blue FC||6 p.m.|
|August 14||Western New York Flash vs. Atlanta Beat||6 p.m.|
|August 17||WPS Playoffs, First Round||TBD|
|August 20||WPS Playoffs, Super Semifinal||4 p.m.|
|August 27||WPS Playoffs, Championship||4 p.m.|
Beau Dure is a freelance sports writer based in Vienna, Va. His first book, "Long-Range Goals: The Success Story of Major League Soccer," was released last year by Potomac Books.