By Tim Grainey
USL’s W-League has 30 teams distributed across five regional divisions for the 2012 season, an increase of three teams from 2011, which kicks off this month. This week, we will preview the Southeast Division, which has the league’s three expansion franchises, and the Western Division, which has received a lot of attention recently, due to some top professional player signings by the eight teams based in California, Washington, Colorado and British Colombia.
In addition, the Seattle Sounders Women have had some truly shocking attendance figures for three pre-season exhibition games versus college teams— over 13,000 or 4,350 per game on average--at their Starfire Complex in suburban Tukwila, well above the 3,800 they attracted in total for seven games last season, or 543 a match. The Sounders signed U.S. National Team players Stephanie Cox, Hope Solo, Sydney Leroux, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Keelin Winters. In addition, the Sounders have targeted other players who played collegiately in Washington or Oregon, including Veronica Perez, a University of Washington grad who plays internationally for Mexico. The Sounders will be hurt by their U.S. stars’ departure to the Olympic Games but Seattle, for decades a soccer city with an international reputation on the men’s side, has shown that they will fervently support the women’s game as well. The Sounders preseason has been a true energy boost to the W-League.
Vancouver Whitecaps, a two time W-league champion, will be a serious contender for the league crown. They have signed Jenny Jeffers, who played in WPS with Chicago Red Stars and won a W-League title in 2010 with the Buffalo Flash. English youth international Demi Stokes is on-board for the summer, after a year at the University of South Florida. Stokes has played for England at the U-17, U-19. U-20 and U-23 levels and helped England capture the UEFA Women’s U-19 Championship, defeating Sweden 2-0 in the final. The Whitecaps will be aided by a number of current Canadian National Team members including midfielders Kaylyn Kyle, Desiree Scott, Chelsea Stewart, Brittany Timko, defenders Mel Booth and Shannon Woeller along with forward Chelsea Buckland. As with the Sounders’ Americans, these players will miss some games due to their Olympic Games commitment.
The Whitecaps also have two new members who played last season in WPS: defender Danielle Johnson and forward Mele French. Johnson played this winter in Australia with Melbourne Victory and before that with Sky Blue FC. French won WPS and W-League titles with the Western New York/Buffalo Flash, has played in Germany, and won another W-League title with Pali Blues in 2008.
Pali Blues won league titles in 2008 and 2009 but did not make the playoffs last season. For their fifth W-League season, head coach Charlie Naimo has signed midfielder Sarah Huffman, who went to the University of Virginia, won a W-League title with Washington Freedom in 2007 and played in WPS for the Freedom and magicJack for three years. Liz Bogus (forward), who won a W-League title in 2008 with Pali Blues, returns after three years in WPS with Los Angeles Sol and Boston Breakers. Yesim Servet Uzunlar is a new addition in midfield, having played for Australia in last summer’s Women’s World Cup and was an Australian W-League champion in 2010 with Sydney FC. In goal, the Blues will have former Pepperdine keeper and Italian National Team member Anna Picarelli. Stanford 2011 NCAA champion Camille Levin and former Canadian international Sasha Andrews will be important cogs in the Blue’s defense.
Santa Clarita Blue Heat will be loaded with international talent this season, with the return of Portuguese International and 2011 W-League All-League forward Edite Fernandes. Two Mexican National Team stars, defender Marlene Sandoval who played at Cal State Fullerton and midfielder Dinora Garza, are new to the Blue Heat as is Panamanian National team forward Amarelis De Mera. U.S. U-20 national team pool player Taylor Ramirez, who is a defender at the University of North Carolina, will also boost the defense. The Blue Heat’s solid roster should ensure a second consecutive playoff spot for the third year franchise, which made the conference finals last season.
The Los Angeles Strikers hope to improve on their inaugural season in 2011, when they won only four of their 14 games. The Strikers will go primarily with California-based collegians mixed with some international imports. Australian midfielder Amy Chapman has been capped by her country. Also in midfield, Amanda Matthews plays for the Republic of Ireland National Team.
The two Colorado teams also have made some impressive signings. Brittany Bock, who won a WPS title last season with Western New York Flash after stints with Washington Freedom and Los Angeles Sol, joins Colorado Rush in defense. The Colorado Rapids women signed defender Brooke Spence, who played in her native Australia’s W-League, along with South Africa’s Ode Fulutudilu, who is in the national team pool for the 2012 Olympic Games squad. Fulutdilu currently plays at NAIA power Lee University in Tennessee. Katrine Korsgaard (midfield) comes from Denmark and has captained Denmark’s U-19 and U-23 national team.
The Victoria Highlanders hope to improve on their first season in the league in 2011, when they won only once in 14 games.
The Southeast Division contains five teams, including the 2011 W-League champion Atlanta Silverbacks, for which All-Conference goalkeeper Ashley Baker returns after completing her junior year at University of Georgia. The Charlotte Lady Eagles, always a competitive team, returns All-Conference midfielder Samantha Huecker. The three expansion teams all will compete in the Southeast Division: Central SC Cobras of Columbia, South Carolina will have two key defenders: Trinidad and Tobago’s Ayana Russell and South Carolina native Alison Jarrow, who played in Iceland. The FC Jax Destroyers of Jacksonville and VSI Tampa Flames of Tampa--where the USL is headquartered--are both new Floridian franchises.
Next Week: The Roundup previews the Atlantic, Northeast and Central Divisions
Tim Grainey is a regular contributor to Soccer365. His latest book Beyond Bend it Like Beckham was released earlier this month. Get your copy today.
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