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Apr 1, 2009

Inaugural WPS game opens to strong crowd

It wasn't a flawless game by any means, but the inaugural WPS game between Los Angeles and Washington showed promise for the return of professional women's soccer to the United States. A crowd of 14,832 was on hand at the Home Depot Center to see the home team Sol beat the Freedom 2-0. The attendance was exceptional for a league hoping to average between 4,000 and 6,000 spectators per game.

Sol goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc, who made three saves while posting the shutout, was excited by the crowd. "The environment was amazing. Just to know the support," she said. "It wasn't just about the idea of a soccer game. It was coming together with the pioneers of the sport, with Mia Hamm out there, to the little girls who hope and dream to be there one day."

The league's star attraction, three-time FIFA world player of the year Marta, did not score a goal, but she did notch an assist and cause havoc for a Washington team that for the most part seemed unable to adjust to the fast pace and attacking style the Sol were playing.

Marta will be joined in the attack this season by Aya Miyama of Japan and Han Duan of China, and the three were the players to watch throughout the inaugural match. While the trio clearly still needs some time to play and practice together -- no one on Marta's team seemed prepared for her no-look backheel passes, which her Brazilian national team teammates have come to expect regularly -- they started to get more in sync as the game went on and should become a significant threat as the season continues.

For LeBlanc, the glimpses of brilliance among the three players were something she has seen in practice all preseason. "Offensively, everyone got an opportunity to see a little bit of the powers that we have with Marta, Aya and Han. What's great about this being our first game is that this was just the beginning and it can only get better," LeBlanc said. "Sometimes, Marta will make anybody look foolish. Sometimes in practice, they just do things, and you're like, 'How did you do that?'"

Also of note in the first match was the return of U.S. national team star Abby Wambach, who broke her leg in July, just weeks before the Olympics. While Wambach, playing for Washington, didn't have many touches, as the Sol controlled most of the possession, she did look healthy and forced LeBlanc to make a save on a point-blank shot in the first half.

While the Freedom get this coming weekend off, the Sol will be in action once again, traveling across the country to play Sky Blue FC in New Jersey on Sunday. "[Sky Blue FC coach] Ian [Sawyers] was one of the coaches in the WUSA, so you know he's put together a great team and they're going to have some great players," LeBlanc said. "They've now had an opportunity to see us play, so they'll have a bit more of an up on us."

Sky Blue FC is led by Americans Christie Rampone, Natasha Kai and Heather O'Reilly. After watching the Sol get a win in their first game, O'Reilly said her team is ready to face Los Angeles. "There's a couple obvious players that you think of when you think of L.A. Sol. Marta is definitely their star, and of course, playing with Shannon Boxx on the national team, I know what kind of quality player she is and what she brings to the field," O'Reilly said. "I think they have a very attacking style of play, but I'm very confident in our side and our preparation so far. I think it's going to be a good match."

With the first match out of the way, attention turns to the rest of the season. As the games spread out to New Jersey, St. Louis, Chicago, Boston, San Jose and Washington, will the fans continue to come see the action? The real test will come this weekend as the league moves away from the hype of the inaugural match.

This weekend's other WPS games:

FC Gold Pride (San Francisco Bay Area) hosts the Boston Breakers on Sunday in this weekend's nationally televised game. The Gold Pride feature two of the more famous names in U.S. women's soccer history: 40-year-old Brandi Chastain and 36-year-old Tiffeny Milbrett, the first WUSA MVP. The two players who should have the biggest effects for FC Gold Pride, however, are Canadian striker Christine Sinclair, who has 95 international goals to her credit, and U.S. national team backup goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart. Boston, meanwhile, is stacked with the likes of Kristine Lilly, Amy Rodriguez, Kelly Smith and Heather Mitts, and on paper, it looks like one of the best teams in the league.

Brazilian striker and world player of the year finalist Cristiane also will be in action as her Chicago Red Stars travel to face the St. Louis Athletica on Saturday. With offensive players like Cristiane and England's Karen Carney -- as well as Americans Lindsay Tarpley, Carli Lloyd and Megan Rapinoe -- the Red Stars should keep St. Louis' Hope Solo busy in goal.

How to follow the games:

Right now, there are no regional television deals in place, and this weekend's non-FSC games will not be broadcast online. Fans will need to use the league's various Internet initiatives (Twitter, the match tracker on the league Web site) to follow the games live. Teams that play have indicated they will post highlights on their sites after the games are over.

Jacqueline Purdy covers women's soccer for ESPN.com. She also is an editor for ESPNRadio.com. She can be reached by e-mail at jacquelinepurdy@gmail.com, followed on Twitter and friended on ESPN's fan profiles.

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