Sol's defense provides Marta with solid support
The Los Angeles Sol just keep on rolling. After a 1-0 win Sunday over FC Gold Pride (Bay Area), Los Angeles is 3-0 and still in first place. While they are led on offense by three-time FIFA Player of the Year Marta, who is tied for the league lead with three goals, the defense has posted three straight shutouts. Los Angeles is the only team yet to concede a goal in Women's Professional Soccer.
"I think it's been a combination of factors, really," said Sol midfielder Aly Wagner by telephone. "Our back line has been doing a great job. When you have the ball and you're possessing the ball, other teams can't score on you.
"I would have to go with Karina LeBlanc as probably the biggest reason we have no goals against us. She's been huge back there for us. Anytime you want to contend for championships, you have to have a good goalie, and she has been outstanding so far."
LeBlanc has 14 saves, highlighted by a point-blank stop of Washington's Abby Wambach in the inaugural game.
"We're just working together well as a unit, from the front all the way back," said LeBlanc via telephone. "We're doing it together. We're getting goals together and we're defending goals together."
It was the first start of the year for Wagner, who has battled through injuries over the past few years, and she connected with Marta in the 47th minute for the only goal of Sunday's game. Wagner earned WPS Player of the Week honors for her performance.
"I pulled [Marta] aside in one practice, and I was just discussing with her, 'What is it that you like? When I get the ball and I have no pressure, what are you thinking?'" said Wagner. "I think we're finally getting on the same page."
Despite having players from seven different countries (United States, Brazil, Japan, China, Canada, France and Sweden) who speak different languages, the Sol seem to be the team that has gotten on the same page the fastest.
"When you're winning, you're having fun. We just all love the game so much that once we're on the field, we just want to enjoy it. It really is a team effort," said LeBlanc. "We spend a lot of time together off the field, also. We had a French night the other day where Camille [Abily] cooked for us, or we'll go to a Brazilian restaurant. It's a little touch of everybody's culture, so I think everyone's feeling comfortable also, which is huge."
Elsewhere in WPS, the Chicago Red Stars gave it their best shot but could not pull off a win in their home opener. In the pouring rain at Toyota Park, Chicago pressured Sky Blue FC (NJ/NY) all game but came away with a 0-0 draw. The game was one of the more exciting scoreless draws you'll see (and the first in WPS) as the Red Stars' attack finally came to play but just couldn't find the back of the net. The highlight of the game was Megan Rapinoe's bicycle kick in the box, which Sky Blue goalkeeper Karen Bardsley turned away in the first half.
"I think nobody in the stadium expected [Rapinoe] to pop off and do a bicycle kick. It shows her talent and her athleticism," said Red Stars coach Emma Hayes via telephone. "It's a shame it didn't go in, because I think it would've been the sort of thing that would've been shown time and time again."
Goalkeeper Caroline Jonnson posted a clean sheet for the Red Stars, just a week after her 14-save performance in Chicago's 1-1 draw against Washington.
"Best goalkeeper in the league. Best goalkeeper in the world, in my opinion," said Hayes.
In Washington, the Boston Breakers moved into second place in the league with a 3-1 win over the Freedom in a game that saw the first two penalty kicks in league history and all the goals scored in the second half. Kelly Smith converted for Boston, but Breakers' keeper Kristin Luckenbill turned away Abby Wambach's effort. Boston added two goals by Christine Latham and Angela Hucles. Until Latham's goal, Smith had either scored or had an assist on every Boston goal this year.
"We've been working a lot on our attacking third play," said Breakers coach Tony DiCicco via telephone."We had some really good attacking play. In addition to the penalty kick, we had two very good goals. It's good to get a lot of players involved in your scoring because obviously that breeds confidence."
The race for MVP -- and possibly FIFA World Player of the Year -- between Los Angeles' Marta and Boston's Kelly Smith is going to be fun to watch this season. They are already considered the two best players in the world, and though it's probably way too early to be handing out any hardware, both have been very impressive so far. Each has three goals and an assist, and each has found the score sheet in every game this season. Smith has a goal in all three Breakers' matches, while Marta has scored in back-to-back games. Each has been the most dangerous player on the field whenever she's played and the main offensive presence for her team.
While it looks like their battle will take a bit of a break this week as both players will join their respective national teams for friendlies, the real drama will be on May 2 as Marta and Smith face each other when the Breakers and Sol meet in Boston. Until then, Marta will be with Brazil's national team for a pair of friendlies in Germany and Sweden and will miss this weekend's match for the Sol in St. Louis. Smith will be in England as her national team plays Norway on Thursday; though she will fly back to join the Breakers in Chicago for Saturday's match, her availability will depend on how much playing time she sees versus Norway.
Marta and Smith lead a long list of players on international duty this week. Also getting called into action for Brazil are Cristiane (Chicago), Formiga (FC Gold Pride), Erika (FC Gold Pride) and Francielle (St. Louis).
Camille Abily (France, Los Angeles Sol), Sonia Bompastor (France, Washington Freedom), Han Duan (China, Los Angeles Sol) and Sara Larsson (Sweden, Saint Louis Athletica) will also be playing for their national teams this weekend and will miss WPS action.
English national teamers Alex Scott (Boston), Karen Carney (Chicago) and Eniola Aluko (St. Louis) will join Smith for Thursday's England-Norway game and rejoin their club teams in time for this weekend's matches.
When international players are called into action, playing time opens up for younger players hoping to make it to the U.S. national team. U.S. coach Pia Sundhage said recently that she intends to call up the best American players for U.S. friendlies in May, regardless of whether they've played at the international level before.
For those American players hoping that WPS can get them onto the national team, there is a player they can look to for guidance. Sol captain Shannon Boxx had no international experience herself when she played for the New York Power in the defunct Women's United Soccer Association (WUSA), and she was named to the 2003 World Cup squad.
"My story is very unique," said Boxx."I went from starting 90 minutes to playing maybe five minutes during the league and then regrouping -- being traded [from San Diego to New York after the 2002 season]. I hope my story is out there. I hope people realize that if they want to take it to the next level, make it to the national team, it is a possibility."
The Washington Freedom have signed Canadian goalkeeper Erin McLeod, and she will join the team once her visa is finalized. She should immediately challenge Briana Scurry, who has allowed six goals in three games, for the starting spot in goal.
The relaunch of the league Web site has brought about more video highlights. In addition to the televised games, highlights have been posted of every goal over the first three weeks (including Marta's two goals, Lindsay Tarpley's score in Chicago's win over St. Louis and the Smith-to-Lilly goal against Hope Solo in Boston) and full match highlights of the weekend's non-Fox Soccer Channel games (Breakers-Freedom, Sol-FC Gold Pride). It's one thing to read about the top plays and see photos, it's a whole nother thing to see them. The more video the league gets out there, the better.
With 10 games in the books for WPS, the league reports an average attendance of 6,039 -- right about what WPS is hoping to average for the season. With all the home openers in the books, the test will be how many fans keep returning. Three teams have now hosted two home games, and all have seen a natural attendance drop. The Sol had an understandable drop from the hype of the inaugural game (14,832 to 6,119), but 6,000 would be a solid number to post for the rest of the season. At a smaller venue in Washington, the attendance drop was small (5,038 to 4,232). The biggest drop was for Sky Blue FC, who played their first two home games in Bridgewater, N.J. (6,053 to 2,753) and will play at Rutgers in Piscataway, N.J., the rest of the season.
1. Los Angeles Sol (3-0-0) -- Still undefeated and still haven't given up a goal.
2. Boston Breakers (2-1-0) -- First team in the league to get to three goals in a game and managed to spread the offense around more in the win over the Freedom.
3. Chicago Red Stars (1-0-2) -- Put on quite an attacking show in the home opener, but couldn't get one in the net.
4. FC Gold Pride (1-1-1) -- Lost to the top team in the league.
5. Sky Blue FC (0-1-2) -- Did well to keep up with Chicago and earn a draw.
6. Washington Freedom (0-2-1) -- Still getting lots of chances, but no wins to show for it.
7. St. Louis Athletica (0-2-0) -- Coming off a bye week to face the Marta-less Sol.
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.