Big names steal the WPS limelight in the early going
Just a week into the season, the WPS is off to a fast start. While the first few games of the WUSA in 2001 were saddled with slow, tentative play and several 0-0 draws, that has certainly not been the case in 2009. The league's star attraction, Marta, has already had a two-goal game and there's already been a game-winning goal in the closing minutes of a match (FC Gold Pride). The quality of play has been noticeably higher this time around, making the games more exciting.
The game has indeed evolved since 2003, when the WUSA folded. For a start, the international game has produced far more quality players. But it's not just the internationals and U.S. national teamers who are excelling so far in WPS; U.S. players who aren't regulars on the national team have also impressed -- from Alex Singer of the Freedom keeping Marta in check in the inaugural game to FC Gold Pride's Tiffany Weimer doing her own Marta impression in her team's win over Boston this past weekend.
It's something Tiffeny Milbrett, who led the New York Power of the WUSA and now plays for FC Gold Pride, attributes to youth soccer opportunities throughout the country. "Where we left off in '03 with the WUSA, I think the players are even two and three levels above 2003 after three years of playing in the WUSA," Milbrett said via telephone. "The younger that they are, the better they are getting. I can absolutely see the difference in quality even just from the first day in preseason."
Week in review
Los Angeles' Marta dazzled, Boston's Smith dominated and Chicago pulled out a tough road win, but when the weekend was done in WPS, FC Gold Pride's Milbrett hit the biggest winner.
The Sol (2-0-0) continued their dominance with a 2-0 win over Sky Blue FC (0-1-0) on Sunday afternoon. Marta took advantage of Sky Blue captain and top defender Christie Rampone's leaving the game early with a hamstring injury, netting her first two WPS goals in the span of two minutes in Bridgewater, N.J. Sky Blue had some chances late in the game but couldn't capitalize as Sol goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc posted another shutout.
"I am very happy to have scored my first two goals in WPS," Marta said through an interpreter. "They were both opportunities that I was glad that I was able take advantage of and give us the win."
While Sky Blue eventually settled down and did a nice job in the second half of keeping Marta in check, the damage was already done. "Obviously Marta is an exceptional talent. She put away a couple of our mistakes. I think we gifted her a couple of goals early on and couldn't recover from it," Sky Blue coach Ian Sawyers said of Marta's performance. "You can't stop her. You can only hope to contain her."
The weekend's nationally televised game saw the most exciting finish as FC Gold Pride (1-0-0) stunned the star-studded Boston Breakers (0-1-0) with a 2-1 win. The Gold Pride scored early against a Boston back line that seemed tentative opening the game and an offense that just couldn't get all its top players on the same page for most of the match. Eventually, Boston's biggest star, Smith, took over late in the game, notching the equalizer in the 79th minute, but in the 89th minute, second-half substitute Milbrett netted FC Gold Pride's second goal of the game, quickly jumping on a rebound off a Kristin Luckenbill save and pushing it into the goal. Smith wasn't done on the attack for Boston, but her last-chance strike in the closing seconds hit the crossbar.
"It felt awesome," Milbrett said of her game-winning goal. "It felt great to be able to contribute. Do my job. Be a forward. Score goals for the team and win our first home match."
Milbrett, the 2001 WUSA MVP and one of the top U.S. national team goal scorers of all time, wasn't even drafted, but made the team after asking for a tryout. Since the WUSA folded and she played her last national team match in 2005, she had played in Sweden and in the W-League for the Vancouver Whitecaps.
"Even though I've not been on the national team since , I've still been a pro player, playing club ball," Milbrett said. "I'm just really thankful that I do have the opportunity to be a part of a very strong team in a league that should be here and should never have gone away in the first place."
For Boston, a team that on paper before the season looked to be the best in the league, it's a frustrating loss as its offensive stars had trouble connecting for most of the game. The short preseason was even shorter for the Breakers as players like Smith, Amy Rodriguez and Angela Hucles all joined the team late in camp because of national team duties.
"It's the first game, we've still got a lot to learn," Smith said. "You're still getting used to the system that the coach wants you to play. You don't really know everybody on the team, what their strengths and their weaknesses are. Only a month in camp is probably not long enough. It's going to be a long road. The team that we are now is not going to be the team that we are come the end of the season."
Smith's late-game efforts drew praise from a WPS coach who knows her well.
"I've coached Kelly, so I'm biased," said Chicago head coach Emma Hayes, who was on the coaching staff of Smith's Arsenal side in England. "Kelly clearly showed ... I know everybody's got their eyes on Marta in this league, but Kelly, in my opinion, outside of Marta, is the best player in the world."
Hayes, meanwhile, coached her Chicago Red Stars to the first road win in league history Saturday night with a 1-0 win over St. Louis Athletica. In their home opener, St. Louis outshot Chicago 15-7, but couldn't get past Red Stars keeper Caroline Jonsson. Lindsay Tarpley scored Chicago's only goal in the 78th minute, beating her U.S. national team teammate Hope Solo.
The highlight of the game for Hayes was the 100-plus fans who made the 4½-hour bus ride from Chicago to St. Louis to see the Red Stars' first game.
"It felt about 5,000 because they were the noisiest people in the stadium," Hayes said. "They're bringing the traditions and the cultures that I think women's soccer lacks.
"The coaching staff were talking about not just hearing them sing, but apparently when we scored, they set off flares. Truly, had you seen these fans you would've thought you were at a South American or a European soccer game."
A few more notes
The Sol seem to be having no problem getting international stars Marta of Brazil, Han Duan of China and Aya Miyama of Japan on the same page, even though they all speak different languages. It was Han Duan's cross that set up Marta's second goal in the win over Sky Blue FC. "Obviously it's not very easy because we all don't speak the same language, but it's growing," Marta said of their communication with one other. "The language of football is pretty much the same."
Both teams in the Sol-Sky Blue game had presenting jersey sponsors, the only two teams with shirt sponsors so far.
The attendance for the weekend was right in the wheelhouse of what WPS is hoping to attract. St. Louis had an announced sellout of 5,008, while Sky Blue drew a near-capacity 6,053 fans and FC Gold Pride had 6,549 in attendance. The league hopes to average between 4,000 and 6,000 fans for each game.
Hayes said Brazilian star Cristiane, who sat Chicago's win over St. Louis, will be ready to go this week. Hayes said Cristiane was working on getting settled with the team.
1. Los Angeles Sol -- Two wins, four goals scored, zero goals allowed and keep looking better.
2. FC Gold Pride -- Big home win over one of the preseason favorites.
3. Chicago Red Stars -- Bested Solo and got a road win, all without Cristiane.
4. Boston Breakers -- Too many good players to play the way they did. Just couldn't get on the same page.
5. St. Louis Athletica -- Had lots of chances, but came away with a tough loss in their home opener.
6. Sky Blue FC -- Rough home opener, losing Rampone and then giving up two goals to Marta.
7. Washington Freedom -- Bye week after looking flat in the inaugural game loss.
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 email@example.com, followed on Twitter and friended on ESPN's fan profiles.