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Off-season WUSA Pick-ups

A monthly column about the State of U.S. Soccer that takes a hard look at everything from the performance of the U.S. National Teams to pro soccer in the good ‘ole U-S-of-A . If you’re looking for a viewpoint that you won’t see in a generic, nuts-and-bolts U.S. Soccer press release, you’ve come to the right place.

Just like last month’s dissection of MLS off-season moves, the Armchair Midfielder turns the same skeptical eye on their female counterparts.

Now on Year Three, it’s as if this off-season became the right time to shake things up, with teams dismissing players that may not have lived up to expectations over the first two seasons and ushering in a new set of coaches. As a direct result, Year 3 looks all the more exciting, with the only drawback being the time away from the WUSA that the league’s top players will be spending with their respective national teams in the build-up to WWC ’03. (Rookies and bench-warmers rejoice!!!)

So here goes, with a list of major pick-up’s and major losses, as well as a mini-prospectus, for each WUSA team for 2003, broken down into Who’s UP, Who’s DOWN and Who’s STUCK in the MIDDLE:

Who’s UP:

Carolina Courage:
IN: Jay Entlich (HC); Breanna Boyd.
OUT: Marcia McDermott (HC).
If it ain’t broke… Sure, it’s an old cliché, but when the shoe fits… (Sorry, I couldn’t resist). Maybe it’s the prospect of prognosticating the Courage’s success in 2003 that makes one a bit giddy. I’m sure incoming coach Jay Entlich feels that way, inheriting a team that was the class of the WUSA in 2002 and deservedly walked away with the title. Everyone is back for the defending champs, including two of the league’s best players in German forward and 2002 MVP Birgit Prinz and Norwegian playmaker Hege Riise. Then there are a trio of players from the ’99 Women’s World Cup championship team -- TR, Fotop and Carla Overbeck -- that stepped it up in last year’ playoffs. With the addition of Canadian defender Boyd, the Courage should have the best defense in the league, anchored by 2002 Defender of the Year Danielle Slaton and also featuring Overbeck, Nel Fettig, Staci Burt and promising goalkeeper Kristin Luckenbill, who played every minute of the 2002 season. I guess the rich get richer. (Last one. I promise.)

Philadelphia Charge:
IN: Melanie Hoffman, Anne Makinen, Hope Solo.
OUT: Liu Ailing, Mandy Clemens, Zhao Lihong.
Could this be the year for the Charge? After faltering in the playoffs each of the league’s first two years, it may be their turn for the title. But their overall success likely comes down to whether injury-plagued English playmaker Kelly Smith can contribute throughout the entire 2003 campaign. Teamed with French forward Marinette Pinchon, who was the discovery of the season after lighting up the league with 14 goals, Philly packs plenty of punch on paper. Smith will have to stay healthy and “Frenchie” will have to avoid a sophomore slump as a marked woman this year in order to make up for the loss of reliable Chinese midfielders Zhao Lihong and Liu Ailing and off-season castaway Clemens. Beyond Smith and U.S. WNT defensive midfielder Lorrie Fair, they’re missing impact players in the middle of the field, even with the additions of Hoffman and Makinen. Although the Charge defense allowed the lowest number of goals in the WUSA in 2002 and ‘keeper Melissa Moore had a fine campaign, it will be difficult to repeat last year’s success, especially with the loss of defensive specialist and former Charge assistant coach Pia Sundhage gone to the Breakers. Don’t be surprised if former U-21 starter Solo starts in the nets and has a fine rookie season to help the Charge make it three post-season trips in a row.

San Diego Spirit:
IN: Omid Namazi (HC); Jen Branam, Susan Bush, Kerry Connors, Daniela, Christine Latham, Aly Wagner.
OUT: Carlos Juarez / Kevin Crow (HC); Mercy Akide, Shannon Boxx, Rhiannon Tanaka, Fan Yunjie.
As the league’s perennial underachiever, the San Diego Spirit did all they could in the off-season to shake that tag in ’03: dumped the dead weight (Akide, among others), hired a new coach (Namazi), and picked up the best player to come out of college since the league has been in operation (Wagner). With the addition of Wagner, it’s not enough to say that the Spirit feature four U.S. Women’s National Team players. The reality is that they possess four of the best players of the 20 that will likely represent the Stars & Stripes at China 2003 with Wagner, Joy Fawcett (arguably the best defender in the world), Julie Foudy (team captain and locker-room crack-up), and Shannon MacMillan (the team’s leading scorer in ’02 and owner of a ballin’ brand new Chevy Blazer). But as we all know, it takes more than a few key players to win a championship, so the Spirit will have to rely on their role players - forwards Fleeting and Zhang, midfield adds Kerry Connors and the Brazilian Daniela, and defender Kim Pickup -- to get them to the promised land, especially with what appears to be a below average back line. The Spirit also needs goalkeeper Jamie Pagliarulo to return to her 2001 form after a disappointing ’02 season, and Namazi will have to prove himself as a first-time women’s coach at this level.

Who’s DOWN:

New York Power:
IN: Tom Sermanni (HC); Shannon Boxx, Lauren Orlandos, Joanne Peters, Cheryl Salisbury, Carly Smolak, Margaret Tietjen, Christie Welsh.
OUT: Pat Farmer (HC); Linda Ormen.
Looking at the final standings from the 2002 season, it’s hard not to shake one’s head in disbelief. After jumping out as one of the best teams in the inaugural season, finishing third and giving up just 25 goals, New York completely fell off the WUSA map in 2003, dropping to dead last with a shockingly bad 3-17-1 record and an almost sad 62 goals against (JUST UNDER THREE GOALS A GAME!!!). Obviously his first order of bidness, new Power and former Australia WNT coach Sermanni went out and grabbed a pair of promising Matildas in defender Salisbury and playmaker Joanne Peters, as well as U-21 WNT veteran Orlandos, but it still doesn’t look good out on Long Island. In the nets, Sermanni must choose between often-exposed incumbent Saskia Webber or off-season add Smolak, who only has a few starts under her belt. And with Whalen and Whelchel recovering from ACL tears, U.S. defender Christie Pearce and midfielders Emily Janss and Anita Rapp will have to seriously step up their respective games in order to take full advantage of the stellar David-and-Goliath striking combo of Milbrett and Penn State scoring wiz Welsh.

San Jose CyberRays:
IN: Betsy Barr, Mandy Clemens.
OUT: [none].
Like their MLS brother, San Jose is a season removed from holding the league’s championship trophy, yet look to be mired in mediocrity for the upcoming campaign. After taking the title in 2001, the CyberRays slipped to fifth place in ’02 and didn’t make any major moves in the off-season to improve. On top of that, they are the oldest team in the league with three key players over 30: Brandi Chastain (34), Tisha Venturini-Hoch (31) and Sissi (35). Sure, they did well by picking up rock hard d-mid Betsy Barr in the draft and trading for forward Mandy Clemens, who won the Hermann Trophy just down the road at Santa Clara, but it’s probably not going to be enough to get them back to the playoffs. As in years one and two, they will rely on defense, with Chastain teaming with tuff girls Thori Bryan, Michelle French and Kelly Lindsey to put the clamp down. Katia, who went on a tear last year with 15 goals and six assists, will need to repeat her ’02 success and LaKeysia Beene will need to return to her 2001 Goalkeeper of the Year form for San Jose to overcome an aging midfield and make any kind of noise.

Who’s STUCK in the MIDDLE:

Atlanta Beat:
IN: Maribel Dominguez, Conny Pohlers.
OUT: Amanda Cromwell, Lipang Wang, Sun Wen.
Could the Atlanta Beat possibly have more firepower? Despite possessing three of the league’s best scorers in Cindy Parlow, Charmaine Hooper and Homare Sawa, Atlanta head coach Tom Stone went out and grabbed two more talented forwards with German striker Pohlers and Dominguez, Mexico’s all-time leading scorer. Although they lost Chinese legend Sun Wen, the bottom line is that the Beat are still loaded with ammo. But questions remain: How do you get all of these players on the field? Will their playing styles mesh? And will the defense be able to support the attack-minded style of play? Having B-Scur in the nets, Nikki Serlenga clogging up the midfield, and Kylie Bivens on the back line are encouraging signs, but overall the defense may struggle in comparison.

Boston Breakers:
IN: Pia Sundhage (HC); Devvyn Hawkins, Stephanie Mugneret-Beghe.
OUT: Jay Hoffman (HC); Bettina Wiegmann.
Like the Spirit, Boston has yet to taste post-season play. Also like San Diego, they have a new coach for 2003 hoping to make an impact. And like the Spirit, they feature four U.S. Women’s National Team regulars (Hucles, Kluegel, Lilly and Sobrero). But like San Diego, Boston will need to get it done on defense to make the playoffs in the near future. The Breakers are loaded on offense and will score goals in bunches. In addition to the four USA stars, they have talented internationals in 2002 leading scorer Maren Meinert and forward Dagny Mellgren and two promising additions in Hawkins and French midfielder Mugneret-Beghe, but defense wins championships, and that’s where they have struggled. Boston has given up 70 goals across the first two seasons and must have standout years from Sobs and Klugs, and Canadian ‘keeper Karina LeBlanc, who is a bit suspect, to even have a shot at that elusive upper tier.

Washington Freedom:
IN: Kelly Golebiowski, Gao Hong, Sandra Minnert.
OUT: Anne Makinen, Pu Wei.
Which Freedom team will show up in 2003: the team that limped to a 6-12-3 record in ’01 and started slow in ’02 or the Mia Hamm-inspired squad that tore through the second half of the ’02 season and came within inches of a league championship? Like fellow finalists the Courage, the Freedom didn’t make many moves in the off months, and they look to be quite capable of getting back to the final. Different from last year, they will benefit tremendously from a full season of the services of German defender Steffi Jones, Chinese midfielder Bai Jie, U.S. goalkeeper Siri Mullinix and Hamm, who proved to be the biggest impact player in the league in her role coming off the bench to lift the team to an 11-5-5 record. It should be a treat to see what she can provide across an entire season now that she’s 100% healthy and back at the top of her game, especially alongside 2002 Rookie of the Year Abby Wambach (10 goals and 10 assists). The Freedom will be hurt by the loss of assist leader Wei and Makinen in the midfield, but the addition of Australian forward Golebiowski and German defender Minnert, along with quality goalkeeping (especially with the addition of Gao) should be enough to get them to the WUSA final four.

Table of Contents
1) Armchair Midfielder (Off-season WUSA Pick-ups)
2) In Threes (w/ U-20 MNT forward Knox Cameron)
3) Queries and Anecdotes (w/ MNT, U-23, U-20 MNT midfielder Bobby Convey)
4) Mark That Calendar (MNT vs. Venezuela – March 29)
5) The Wife of Brian (w/ Dina McBride)
6) FAN Point/Counterpoint (Who will win 2003 MLS MVP?)
7) "You Don’t Know Jack (Marshall)" (MISL Trivia)

Download this issue of Center Circle (.pdf).

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