Foreign stars shine in the early going
About one-quarter of the way through the 20-game inaugural season of Women's Professional Soccer, international stars are shining the brightest, but what about the league's American stars?
England's Kelly Smith (Boston Breakers) leads the league with four goals and looks like the best player in WPS. France's Sonia Bompastor (Washington Freedom) dazzles every time she touches the ball. Brazil's Marta (Los Angeles Sol), three-time FIFA player of the year, is the main attraction everywhere she goes. Although Boston shut her down the past two weeks, she still has tallied three goals and an assist on the season. In goal, Sweden's Caroline Jonsson (Chicago Red Stars) and Canada's Karina LeBlanc (Los Angeles Sol) have combined to post eight clean sheets.
Any midseason MVP ballot surely would feature those players at the top. In contrast, U.S. national team players have not made quite the same noise.
The next Women's World Cup doesn't take place until 2011, but the road to Germany starts now as Pia Sundhage begins putting together the U.S. squad for that event. The first WPS-era roster has been called into camp. The U.S. originally was slated to play two games against Japan, but Japan canceled its North American tour because of swine flu concerns. Instead, the U.S. will head to Toronto on May 25 to play Canada.
Several familiar faces are on the U.S. roster: Abby Wambach, Hope Solo and Carli Lloyd, to name a few. After starting the season unable to score a goal, Washington's Wambach appears to be on the road to being back from the broken leg she suffered last summer. In the past two games, she's scored two goals and two assists.
"I feel like I've been getting more comfortable with it every game that's passed," Wambach said via telephone. "I think with a broken bone, it's not so much mental like it would be maybe with a torn ligament. But I have been gone for, out of the game for so long that it's just getting back into the rhythm and sort of speed.
"My touches and stuff keep getting better, and the opportunities that I'm getting to score goals I think should be capitalized on, but I have to be patient with myself."
U.S. national team goalkeepers Solo and Nicole Barnhart have had some tough games but for the most part have played well. They've combined to record three clean sheets on the season.
Other U.S. national teamers appear to be struggling. Chicago's Lloyd has not had much of an offensive effect on her team so far this season. Sky Blue FC's Heather O'Reilly is working hard but just can't seem to find the back of the net. Her teammate Christie Rampone has been battling a hamstring injury and has played only two full games this season. Boston's Amy Rodriguez has had trouble fitting in with her team's offense and has been a second-half sub the past two weeks.
It's not an entirely gloomy picture for the Americans, though, as several non-national team regulars have impressed in WPS. In addition to veterans Solo, Barnhart and Wambach, defenders Brittany Bock of the Sol and Amy LePeilbet of the Breakers have been solid and were called into the U.S. camp. While LePeilbet has 23 caps to her credit, Bock, who will get her diploma Sunday from Notre Dame, is hoping to make her first international appearance.
"My whole life, I've been wanting to play in a World Cup and to win a gold medal," Bock said via telephone. "The first step is obviously getting called in. I'm so happy. My family and friends are so proud of me."
Bock credits her move from an attacking position to center back with helping her get the call to the national team.
"I've always been playing my hardest to be seen, but sometimes they don't need a midfielder, they don't need a forward. I think especially with Kate [Markgraf] having a baby, I know that they were looking for center backs," Bock said. "It's kind of good timing for me because [Sol coach Abner Rogers has] played me back there, they're looking more specifically for that position and I stepped in and just played to the best of my ability. If I was playing forward, who knows if I'd even be starting [for Los Angeles]?"
As the U.S. gets on the road to the 2011 World Cup, Wambach isn't worried that foreign stars seem to be stealing the spotlight in WPS.
"The internationals coming and playing here is only going to make the national team here in the United States better," Wambach said. "We're learning so much, and I'm learning a lot from our internationals. Regardless of who's player of the week or player of the month or best goal scorer, it's good for this league. I think the internationals are a component of this league that's necessary for the success of this league.
"I applaud them and I also challenge the internationals that chose not to come and play in this league to come over because they're going to be pleasantly surprised with the level of play that we have here."
One American player who has excited American fans but was not called into camp is Tiffany Weimer of FC Gold Pride (Bay Area). The 25-year-old from Penn State has shown a Brazilian-like attacking flair that is not usually seen on the U.S. national team. While she was not called into this current national team camp, an international appearance might be in her future at some point this year.
"She's a very creative and savvy player, which I think is something we lack here in this country. It's just refreshing to see her ideas and the things she tries. I definitely encourage her to do that," FC Gold Pride coach Albertin Montoya said via telephone.
"She can do some crazy things, and you just never know what's going to happen out there with her. It's always exciting to watch, and it does create problems for the opposing team."
Weimer has a goal and a league-leading three assists on the season. She has factored into more than half of FC Gold Pride's seven goals on the season.
"I guess I would describe myself as kind of flashy -- that's how people describe me. I would agree," Weimer said via telephone. "I like to entertain the crowd because it's one of the biggest compliments to get -- that you were fun to watch. If somebody says that to me after the game, they enjoyed watching me, that means a lot."
Wambach is the subject of some recent controversy. She's been suspended for this week's match in Boston after her reckless challenge in a game against Saint Louis on May 3 resulted in Saint Louis midfielder Daniela tearing two ligaments in her knee and fracturing her tibia -- and likely being lost for the season. Wambach has decided not to appeal her suspension. WPS commissioner Tonya Antonucci also suspended St. Louis defender Kia McNeil for her repeated fouls on Wambach in the match.
Perhaps Mother's Day weekend isn't the best weekend for WPS. While Los Angeles attracted 6,210 fans for its Sunday match with the Breakers, St. Louis drew 3,860 and Chicago had just 3,664. FC Gold Pride, which had a crowd of 2,533 on May 3, announced it was slashing ticket prices by 25 percent. This is a good move -- not only because of the tough economy, but also because a good-sized crowd makes the games more enjoyable and gets people to come back again.
1. Boston Breakers (3-2-1): Just three weeks after a 4-0 loss to Chicago, Boston has taken four out of six points from the first-place Sol. Team defense has been great the past two weeks, and with Smith on the field, the Breakers look like the best team in the league.
2. Los Angeles Sol (3-1-2): After having their shutout streak snapped by Smith in the second minute May 2, the Sol kept her off the score sheet in the rematch in a 0-0 draw. Scoring goals has been a problem for the Sol lately, despite all their attacking talent.
3. Chicago Red Stars (2-1-2): Disappointing performance in the home loss to Sky Blue FC. Outside of the 4-0 win over Boston, the Red Stars have scored just two goals this season.
4. FC Gold Pride (2-3-1): One of two teams in the league without a road win.
5. Saint Louis Athletica (1-2-2): The Athletica just seem like a team that might get on a run. If Solo gets hot, they could be trouble.
6. Sky Blue FC (1-2-2): Their defense has been solid, and the offensive spark seemed to come out in the 2-0 win at Chicago.
7. Washington Freedom (1-2-2): With Wambach suspended, it could be a tough game Sunday at Boston. The back line and whoever starts in goal (the newly signed Erin McLeod, Kati Jo Spisak or Briana Scurry) will have their hands full.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, followed on Twitter and friended on ESPN's fan profiles.