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Jul 1, 2009

WPS playoffs will be disrupted by absence of European stars

The playoffs of Women's Professional Soccer will be lacking some star power as eight players, from six of the league's seven teams, will miss the playoffs and the Aug. 22 final as they prepare for the European Championships in Finland which begin Aug. 23.

The list of players features some of the top talent in the league: England's Eniola Aluko (St. Louis), Anita Asante (Sky Blue FC), Karen Carney (Chicago), Alex Scott and Kelly Smith (Boston), France's Camille Abily (Los Angeles) and Sonia Bompastor (Washington) and Sweden's Sara Larsson (St. Louis). National team rosters have yet to be announced for all the teams in the tournament, but all are regulars for their national teams.

The group of European players has combined for 22 goals on the season. Smith, Bompastor and Abily, in particular, are MVP candidates, and Aluko is the main offensive threat on a St. Louis team that has at times struggled to score goals but has surged up the standings over the past two months.

"That's a killer question," Aluko said, when asked about having to miss the playoffs. "It's something I'm very upset about, but it's life. At the end of the day, I'm going to a European Championship. It's a nice problem to have, in a strange way. But the girls are so close; we're family. Aside from the fact that I'm going to miss the most important part of the season, I'm going to miss the girls. It's going to be tough."

Through the end of June, Aluko's 4 goals and 2 assists mean that she's factored in on more than half of the team's 11 goals on the year. The impending loss of Aluko is so great for St. Louis that last week they traded away top draft pick Kerri Hanks to Sky Blue FC for Australian forward Sarah Walsh.

"We're definitely worried about when Eniola goes to the [tournament]," Athletica head coach Jorge Barcellos said through a translator after his team's 2-1 win over Sky Blue FC on Sunday.

The European Championships begin the day after the final, and because it's a protected tournament date, FIFA rules say players have to be released to their national teams 14 days before the start of the tournament. Every player asked has indicated they will be leaving after their team's final regular-season game on Aug. 8 or 9.

This isn't breaking news, as the FIFA calendar has been out for quite some time. There's nothing that can be done about it now, of course, and teams have pointed out that they were aware of the risks involved in signing European players.

"Players are going to have to step up. I don't think there's any replacing [Scott and Smith], but we knew that going in," said Breakers head Tony DiCicco, while stressing that he was only worried for the moment about getting into the playoffs. Smith is Boston's top goal scorer, and the Breakers have yet to find the back of the net when she isn't on the field. Scott has been one of the best defenders in the league and hasn't missed a minute of action all season.

It's unfortunate for a league that wants to be the top league in the world -- and a league that is loaded with national team starters for many different countries -- to have the playoffs and the final affected because of a tournament that was already scheduled before the league began its inaugural season.

But -- as the league points out -- WPS had to play a minimum 20-game schedule in order to be certified as a top-tier professional league with USSF, so an 18-game schedule with the final two weeks earlier wouldn't have been possible.

There doesn't appear to be anything the league could've done to avoid this as taking a break and playing into the fall was not an option either because of TV issues and the overloaded fall sports schedule. But, in the future, they need to make sure players are available for the most important part of the season and take a close look at 2011, when the Women's World Cup runs through the middle of the summer. Commissioner Tonya Antonucci has said that the league will take the lessons from this year into 2011.

Sol GM Charlie Naimo said he wouldn't have wanted a shorter season in any case; he'd rather see a longer schedule, with the rest of the season taking place in the fall. But he said it's not something that will be possible for a while in the United States, as sports competition in the fall is too great, with NFL and college football.

"I would love one day to see our league have a traditional league where you have two halves and players are getting an opportunity to play year-round," Naimo said in a recent phone interview. "I think we're a ways away from that. You gotta keep growing the women's game -- the following for the women's game. … When that happens, we're going to have lot more flexibility when it comes to avoiding things like losing players to Olympics, because that's going to happen eventually, too."

The Sol will be missing Abily in the playoffs, and she is currently tied with her teammate Marta for the league lead in goals with 8.

Breakers GM Joe Cummings said Boston is still hoping for Scott and Smith to be able to play in at least one of the playoff games, depending upon where the Breakers finish in the standings. Even if he's successful, they'd be without Scott and Smith for the final.

It might all end up balancing out, because the four teams currently in position to make the playoffs (Los Angeles, Boston, St. Louis and Washington) will all be affected, but it shouldn't have to be this way. All the European players have stood out this season, and a final without some of the best players in the league is disappointing. The All-Star game Aug. 30 in St. Louis, which will pit WPS All-Stars against Marta's former Swedish club Umea, could also be lacking European national team players from both teams, taking some of the shine off the game.

Euro 2009 itself should be a great one and a good showcase for the league on an international level. Two-time defending World Cup champion Germany -- which has no players in WPS as they prepare to host the 2011 World Cup -- is the favorite, but England, a side represented by five players in the WPS (and led by FIFA Player of the Year runner-up Smith), is hoping for a strong performance.

"They're rubbish," Smith joked when asked for a scouting report on Germany. "Obviously, they're the nation to beat, especially in the Euros. They're probably going to be favorites. They're strong at every position and world champions in their own right."

DiCicco is rooting for England in the tournament.

"I would love to see England win this thing because we have five English players in the league. I think it would be a great statement to the league that England won and half of their starting team was playing in America. I think our league is pretty competitive, and we think players develop in this league," DiCicco said.

Power rankings

1. Los Angeles Sol (10-1-4, 34 points): The Sol became the first team to clinch a playoff spot, and they can lock up the top spot in the league -- and the automatic berth to the title game -- very soon.

2. Saint Louis Athletica (5-5-2, 17 points): Solid goalkeeping and timely scoring has been the key to the Athletica's success this season.

3. Boston Breakers (5-4-3, 18 points): The Breakers appear to have turned things around since making the switch to Ali Lipsher in goal.

4. Washington Freedom (4-4-4, 16 points): Moving Sonia Bompastor from midfield to left fullback (which is also her position on the French national team) has helped defensively, but Washington has struggled to score since the move. Bompastor said she'll play wherever the team needs her, but she likes playing in the midfield: "I play for the team. I'm OK with that, but it's more fun when you play midfield or forward," she said.

5. Sky Blue FC (3-6-3, 12 points): Sky Blue FC lost a tough match Sunday to the Athletica.

6. FC Gold Pride (3-6-3, 12 points): Still in the race, but they need to find a way to win.

7. Chicago Red Stars (2-6-5, 11 points): Chicago has only scored two goals since April 25, and suffered a 4-0 loss to the Sol on Saturday.

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 and friended on ESPN's fan profiles.

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