By Tim Grainey
This week the Roundup previews the eight teams for the inaugural season of WPSL-Elite, which stepped into the wake left by Women’s Professional Soccer decision to go on the shelf this past January for a year (expect it to be much longer). WPSL Elite Commissioner Jerry Zanelli plans to expand his new semi-professional league—an offshoot of his 15 year old Women’s Premier Soccer League (WPSL)--to the West Coast next year, including possibly Los Angeles area-based sides such as 2011 WPSL champions Orange County Waves and L.A. Vikings, which has been a home for WPS players during the winter. WPSL has said that it also has commitments from groups in San Diego, Sacramento, San Francisco Bay Area and Seattle for 2013. Zanelli, who runs the Sacramento-based California Storm, will continue to leverage his 60-plus amateur WPSL teams to find franchises who wish to move up to the higher level league--as five of his teams have done this year--while still searching for new entities that want to join what is arguably now the highest caliber league in North America.
The eight inaugural teams in WPSL Elite are:
We review each team’s prospects below:
ASA Chesapeake Charge
The third year WPSL franchise based in the Annapolis, Maryland area made the playoffs in both 2010 and 2011. Head Coach Albert Oni said that, despite the fact that the move up to WPSL Elite “is a new environment for all of us,” he expects his team to be successful in 2012 as his team is comprised of players who have been successful in the past, both individually and as a team. Oni admits that the ASA Chesapeake Charge will be younger than most of its competition in the new league, with the majority of their players either in high school or college, mixed with just a few older players. Oni said that he feels that most of the other teams will have the inverse, with the majority of the squads comprised of older players, with just a few that are still in college or even high school. Ono does have some youth national team caliber players, including Penn State’s Christine Nairn, a native of Annapolis and currently a member of the U.S. U-23 team. Nairn won a U-20 World Cup with the Americans in 2008. The Charge added two U-18 U.S. national teamers: midfielders Riley Barger and Ashley Spivey, who will both be freshmen this fall at the University of Maryland—College Park. Forward Laura Kane, who played at the University of West Virginia, brings some professional and coaching experience to the young side, having played in Sweden in 2008 with Pitea and also spent time as an assistant coach at Purdue and Bucknell Universities. Defender Jessica Hnatiuk and midfielder Erica Suter return to the Charge, after playing together at John Hopkins University.
One of the organization’s goals is to facilitate player progression from youth to senior teams while integrating into their local community. The Charge is a fine example of the type of quality organization that has quickly matured in WPSL and now advances to help grow a higher level of the sport. The playoffs may be beyond them this year, but the Charge will not be outclassed and are certainly a side to watch in future years.
The Boston Breakers joined WPSL Elite after three years in WPS and will be looked on as a title challenger, led by Head Coach Lisa Cole, who was Tony DiCicco’s assistant with the Breakers. Cole has added some top young Australian National Team talent in forward Kyah Simon and midfielder Tameka Butt, who both played in last summer’s Women’s World Cup. The Breakers are loaded with U.S. National Team experience, including Cat Whitehill in defense and Leslie Osborne in midfield. Current national team midfielder/winger Heather O’Reilly will also play for the Breakers around her national team commitments. Assisting Lisa Cole with be Kristine Lilly, the all-time international cap leaders—men’s or women’s—with 352, who will bring her unique vision of the game and positive attitude to the team. The signing of the very popular Lilly, who has played for the Breakers since the WUSA days, is an important step for the franchise for marketing and legacy purposes.
Cole is a savvy coach and with the top quality professionals that she has attracted, the Breakers should easily make the final four. As a former WPS team, their attendance figures will be scrutinized more than the others, particularly compared to last season in WPS, where they averaged 4,289, third behind the Western New York Flash’s 4,881and Atlanta Beat’s 4,839 in the six team league that averaged around 3,500 per game.
Chicago Red Stars
The Red Stars missed the playoffs in their two years in WPS but, after dropping down to the WPSL in 2011, they made the championship final, losing to the Orange County Wave 2-1 in overtime. Even with the step up in level, the Red Stars should still be a threat for the final in 2012, relying on a primarily Chicagoland-based side in addition to former National Team midfielder and St. Louis native Lori Chalupny. In defense, the Red Stars have experienced ex-WPS defenders including Jen Buczkowski, who won a WPS title with Sky Blue before playing for two years with the Philadelphia Independence, and Julianne Sitch, who played with Sky Blue, Chicago and Atlanta. They will be joined by Shannon McDonnell, who played collegiately at the University of Illinois and is a Republic of Ireland international. In midfield, Amanda Cinalli played for St. Louis Athletica and Atlanta Beat while Michelle Wenino played in WPS with the Red Stars and Sky Blue FC. Forward Michele Weissenhofer played at Notre Dame and in Germany with Essen-Schonebeck. Late signing Ella Masar, who was a strong goal scorer for the WPS Red Stars—notching a team high eight in 2010—played last season with magicJack before joining Paris St. Germain in France this winter.
FC Indiana, which won WPSL titles in 2005 and 2007, was a U.S. Soccer Federation professionally registered women’s team before even the launch of WPS, so the step up to the WPSL Elite will be relatively straightforward for them. For 2012 however, followers should brush up on their French as they have registered 17 Haitian internationals. FC Indiana Head Coach Shek Borkowski was appointed to the same position for Haiti’s National Team in early February. He brought the island’s top players to live and train in Lafayette, Indiana for six months. Rather than a league title, he is aiming to have Haiti qualify for the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada. With the Canadians as automatic qualifiers as hosts and the powerful United States assumed to be a sure bet for the top spot, the remaining one and one-half CONCACAF qualification spots (expected) will come down to Mexico and Costa Rica. Borkowski figures that he has two and one-half years to become competitive with Costa Rica and Mexico. As the fifth-ranked team in the region currently, this goal is very realistic. The stint in Indiana will allow the coaching staff to institute structure into a group that plays irregularly at home, who are more comfortable using a street-ball, improvisational approach. It’s a long-term developmental project and the WPSL Elite season will help greatly as the Haitians will continually facing top American and international talent. There is precedent for Borwkoski’s approach. Followers of the old North American Soccer League will remember that Team America played in Washington D.C. in 1983, coached by Alkis Panagoulis, who doubled as U.S. national team head coach. Team America’s purpose was to have the best Americans in the league gain experience together ahead of qualifying for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, which the U.S. did not make. Team America did well for a while and upset a few favorites before trailing off and missing the playoffs.
Haitian forward Lovely Placide scored in FC Indiana’s 2-1 exhibition loss to Notre Dame on April 27. FCI was outshot by the Fighting Irish 25-6 and FCI’s offense may take a while to jell, but their always strong defense will keep games close. Holdover American Corie Moore will be an anchor in the back.
Shek Borkowski and his experienced coaching staff have brought an innovative addition to WPSL Elite’s first season, by fielding essential a national team from a developing country in the sport. Though their priority is to qualify for the 2015 World Cup in Canada, it is unwise to ever count out FC Indiana. Look for them to make a late run for a WPSL Elite playoff spot.
New England Mutiny
New England Mutiny of Agawam, Massachusetts (near Springfield) were WPSL league runners-up in 2004 and 2007 and actually began in the W-League as the Springfield Sirens in 1999, winning a W-League II crown in 2000 before joining the WPSL and becoming the New England Mutiny in 2002 They were the last team to join WPSL Elite, replacing Aztec MA who will remain in WPSL. With the change in leagues, the Mutiny’s budget has tripled compared to last season, according to team General Manager Joe Ferrara. However current sponsors have added to their commitment level and the team has attracted new sponsors because of joining the higher profile league. On the field, they have brought in some new players to add experience around their core base of college players that they traditional draw from, including the Universities of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Hartford. In defense, they have Republic of Ireland’s Ciara McCormack, who has played in Denmark and Norway, and former W-League Vancouver Whitecaps and University of
Minnesota player Kelsey Hood, who played with McCormack in Norway with FK Donn. Midfielder Jenny Maurer, who has U.S. U-23 national team experience and played at Boston College before becoming an assistant coach there, returns for her tenth season with the club. Maurer joined the Mutiny as a teenager.
Largely, the Mutiny will build around young college players, and have attracted some strong players with U.S. youth national team experience. Kristen Mewis is a U-23 U.S. National Team member, is tabbed as a future full national teamer and can slot in as a defender or in the middle of the park. She plays collegiately at Boston College. Morgan Andrews, a finalist for U.S. Soccer Young Female Athlete of the Year and current U.S. U-17 National Team captain, will boost the midfield. Andrews will play at BC in the fall.
The Mutiny is young and talented and surrounded by a few experienced players will be in the hunt for a playoff spot and is definitely a strong addition to the new league.
New York Fury
Head Coach Paul Riley took the Philadelphia Independence to two straight WPS title games in 2010 and 2011--the first time as an expansion team--and he is an excellent judge of professional playing talent. As head coach of the Long Island Fury in WPSL, he won league titles in 2006 and 2009. Expect Riley’s team to make the WPSL Elite Final, built on experienced WPS campaigners such as defender Leigh Ann Robinson (FC Gold Pride, Atlanta and Philadelphia), Estelle Johnson (Philadelphia), Kia McNeill (St. Louis, Atlanta and Philadelphia), Brittany Taylor (Sky Blue FC and the U.S. National Team), Nikki Krzysik (Chicago and Philadelphia), midfielder Kim Yokers (FC Gold Pride) and forward Megan Lenczyk (Atlanta Beat). Tina DiMartino, a brilliant midfielder who stole the ball and fed Amy Rodriguez for the winning goal late in the WPS semifinal last year against magicJack, joins Riley from Philadelphia and is a MVP caliber player. Current U.S. National Team midfielder Tobin Heath (Atlanta Beat and Sky Blue FC) will play for the Fury around her Summer Olympics training and games schedule.
Philadelphia Fever, a new team in the WPSL, is led by head coach Stuart Gore, who played professionally with Leeds United, in Spain and in Malaysia’s league as well as collegiately in the U.S., will go entirely with college age players. The Fever’s plan is to conservatively stay within NCAA guidelines to protect their player’s eligibility. Despite their purposive recruiting of youth, they will have four players with international experience on the side, including Leanne Champ, who has been capped by England at youth and senior level and played for Chelsea Ladies last season in the first year of the FA WSL. Defender Molly Allen has been capped by Canada at the U-20 level and has recently finished at Virginia Commonwealth University. Former University of Charlotte defender Megan Minnix has played professionally in Finland. Cherie Sayon competed in soccer and track and field at Georgia’s Clayton State University. Sayon has been capped by Liberia’s National Team and Gore said that her speed will surprise opponents.
Gore is confident that his young players will be fit, as they have all had spring seasons. They will use a ten day camp before the first game to figure out: “what we do when we have the ball and what we do when we don’t have it.” During the season, they will practice four times when there is one game on the weekend and three times when they have two weekend matches. He also thinks that the environment will be different for his players, working with different teammates than for their colleges. Gore feels that they will have a chance to be celebrities in their Philadelphia area, assisting with publicity and camps. Gore, his assistant coach Jamie Scott and team owner Matt Driver are all committed to WPSL Elite as a way of furthering player’s soccer careers, as the league will step into WPS’s void and provide some continuing career options to women players. It’s hard to see this team as a playoff threat but again, like ASA Chesapeake, they are building for the future and have a definite plan.
Western New York Flash
The Flash will go for their third championship in a row in three different leagues. They won the W-League title in 2010 as the Buffalo Flash, joined WPS last year and won again under their current name, playing games in Rochester while practicing in Buffalo. The Flash lost Marta and Caroline Seger to Sweden but have attracted some top talent in defenders Nikki Marshall and Meghan Klingenberg, who both began the year with magicJack before trades to Boston Breakers. In midfield Beverly Goebel was with the Flash in 2011 after suiting up for the Washington Freedom. Other new players include Lori Lindsey (Philadelphia and Washington) and Emily Van Egmond, who is only 19 but scored for Australia at last summer’s Women’s World Cup and has played in Denmark as well as at home in her country’s W-League. At forward, Adriana of Spain (ex-Sky Blue FC) is a strong addition and she will have support in attack from returnee McCall Zerboni, who spent time previously with Atlanta Beat and the Los Angeles Sol. Allison Lipsher, a walk on player who drew raves with Boston in 2009 with a 0.58 GAA in 11 games, will be in goal along with Brittany Cameron. Cameron won WPSL titles in a support role in the nets with Gold Pride and the Flash and also wants a three peat.
The Flash has one of the best soccer owners in America in Joe Sahlen and Aaron Lines brings continuity on the coaching side. At this point, they are favorites for the WPSL Elite title.
WPSL Elite starts this week with the ASA Chesapeake Charge hosting the Boston Breakers. On Saturday, the New England Mutiny entertains the New York Fury, the Western New York Flash hosts FC Indiana in Rochester and while the Breakers play an interleague exhibition against D.C. United of the USL W-League at the Maryland SoccerPlex in Germantown, Maryland—the former home of the WPS’ Washington freedom in 2009 and 2010. The Chicago Red Stars and Philadelphia Fever will begin league play the following week.
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