With the 2009 Women's Professional Soccer season upon us, and a new chapter in the women's game ready to be opened at the Home Depot Center, the question that's on everyone's minds is this: Will it survive?
It's a question that has been on the minds of the followers of the women's game for 5 years and 195 days.
The lessons learned from the three-year failure that was the Women's United Soccer Association are being put into place in the WPS.
With a mission to be the best league in the world, along with steady and sustainable growth at the grassroots level, this is an opportunity that elicits two Latin words:
And so I will seize the opportunity to rank the teams in the WPS. The parity in this league is strong, so the disparity between teams isn't much. and I suggest you read on to see why.
1. LOS ANGELES SOL
Manager: Abner Rogers
Key Players: Marta, Aya Miyama, Shannon Boxx
For the Sol, signing Marta (full name: Marta Viera da Silva), the FIFA Women's Player of the Year, was not only a major coup for Los Angeles, but for the entire league. She will be surrounded by a competent supporting cast.
Aya Miyama, Japan's best player, will be a threat in the midfield, along with Shannon Boxx, whose control and strength provide solid reliability, and Camille Abily, who has had success playing for Olympique Lyonnais.
On defense, keep your eyes peeled for Stephanie Cox and Johanna Frisk. Karina LeBlanc and Val Henderson also provide solid depth at the goalkeeper position.
2. WASHINGTON FREEDOM
Manager: Jim Gabarra
Key Players: Abby Wambach, Lisa De Vanna, Sonia Bompastor
The Freedom will have made a little history of their own: the first-ever team to have competed in three leagues: the WUSA, the W-League, and now the WPS. Only three players from the 2008 side that competed in the W-League remain on the WPS roster.
The Freedom, throughout their years in the WUSA and W-League, have had the privilege of Mia Hamm, Sun Wen and Brandi Chastain (now with FC Gold Pride) on their roster. This year's version of the Freedom, like those of the past, never falls short of talent.
It includes Abby Wambach, who was on the 2002 and 2003 squads. Lisa De Vanna, another forward on the team, scored 15 goals last season for AIK, helping them achieve their most successful year.
Sonia Bompastor, another successful midfield player from Lyon, scored 23 goals in 52 appearance during her three seasons with the club before joining the Freedom.
Also, look for Homare Sawa. The first-ever goal-scorer in WUSA history, can Sawa, who has scored 119 goals in 200 appearances with Japan's Yomiuri/NTV Beleza as well as 65 in 129 appearances with the Japanese national team, be the first to score a goal in the WPS?
At goalkeeper, Brianna Scurry brings 167 international appearances with her to the table. She also filled the GK position with the WUSA's Atlanta Beat, alongside Sawa.
3. CHICAGO RED STARS
Manager: Emma Hayes
Key Players: Cristiane, Lindsay Tarpley, Heather Garriock
Chicago's WPS team, the Red Stars, have their response to Marta in Cristiane. She is a capable striker, having scored 25 goals in 38 appearances for Brazil, along with appeances for 1.FFC Turbine Potsdam, VfL Wolfsburg, Linköpings FC and Corinthians.
Assisting her at forward is Lindsay Tarpley, who had a storied career with the North Carolina Tar Heels (one goal for each of her 59 appearances) and the USA National Team.
Heather Garriock provides height and reliability in the midfield. At 165 cm tall and 58 kg, she has represented Australia with 111 appearances and 19 goals, while also playing for Sydney FC of Australia's W-League (not to be confused with the W-League of USA/Canada).
Caroline Jönsson is one of Sweden's storied goalkeepers. She has played the position at Malmö FF since 2000, and has been with the Swedish national team since 1999.
One of the younger faces to watch on this team is forward Karen Carney. At 21, she already has championship experience as part of Vic Akers' Arsenal Ladies squad. Another sleeper to watch for this season is Lydia Williams, the projected backup keeper with Jaimel Johnson.
4. FC GOLD PRIDE
Manager: Albertin Montoya
Key Players: Christine Sinclair, Tiffeny Milbrett, Leslie Osborne
FC Gold Pride, based in San Francisco, features a squad full of veteran leadership, youth, and foreign talent that will look to contend for the championship in this inaugural season.
As a Northern California team, it's no surprise that Gold Pride looks north...to Canada. And forward Christine Sinclair. Prior to being signed to FC Gold Pride, Sinclair won a championship with the vancouver Whitecaps Women in 2006, along with scored 87 goals in 103 appearances donning the red and white kit of Canada.
Tiffeny Milbrett and Brandi Chastain will provide supporting roles in the midfield. Milbrett, a teammate of Sinclair with the Caps in 2008, has also competed for clubs in Japan and Sweden, along with playing one season with the WUSA's New York Power. And that doesn't include her 100 goals in 202 apperances while international duty.
As for Chastain, you may know her for her colorful penalty shootout celebration in the 1999 Women's World Cup, but what you may not know is that she still takes the field...with the California Storm of the Women's Premier Soccer League, which is an amateur league. This season, she will take on a consulting role to proteges like Christina DiMartino and Tiffany Weimer.
DiMartino, one of the younger players on FC Gold Pride, recently saw international playing time in the 2009 Algarve Cup, and will use this season to test herself against the best. Weimer competed for Washington in the W-League 2006 season, and has also played for Åland United FC (Finland) and Brazil's Santos FC.
While LA, Boston and Chicago may have Brazilian players at the front, Gold Pride has theirs at midfield and defense: Formiga and Érika, respectively.
Formiga, also known as Miraildes Maciel Mota, represented Brazil in the 1995, 1999 and 2003 Women's World Cups and the 1996, 2000 and 2004 Summer Olympics.
Her prior clubs include Saad Esporte Clube, Malmö FF, and the W-League's New Jersey Wildcats. Érika (full name Érika Cristiano dos Santos) is the younger of the two Brazilian players on FC Gold Pride, who was on the 2008 Olympic team that won silver.
5. BOSTON BREAKERS
Manager: Tony DiCicco
Key Players: Alex Scott, Angela Hucles, Kelly Smith
Another of the returning teams from the WUSA, the revived Boston Breakers (who play their home matches at Harvard Stadium in Cambridge) are looking to make the most of their second life in the WPS.
And after one-upping Kazbek Tambi in beating the North Koreans in women's football last year, Tony Dicicco looks to one-up the rest of the competition this year.
And it all starts...with Kelly Smith.
Smith has been the swingwoman of the Arsenal ladies since 2005, scoring 71 goals in 65 appearances with the Gunners. Prior to that, this second striker had a one-year stint with the New Jersey Wildcats of the W-League with eight goals in as many apperances and played for the Philadelphia Charge in the WUSA.
On the midfield, players like Candace Chapman and Angela Hucles will look to gain touches off the ball. Hucles was on the 2004 and 2008 Olympic gold medal teams. A player to look out for on defense is Alex Scott.
Coming out of the English women's football factory that is Arsenal Ladies, she has given her share of the work, paying off with 29 apperances with the club and 40 apperances with England's national team.
But perhaps the biggest story of all (for me at least) is Amy Rodriguez. The first pick in the 2009 Women's Professional Soccer draft, will her impact as a forward in DiCicco's system be as golden as the medal she wears in Beijing?
6. ST. LOUIS ATHLETICA
Manager: Jorge Barcellos
Key Players: Lori Chalupny, Melissa Tancredi, Daniela, Hope Solo
Joan of Arc leads the way with her green banner, and so St. Louis's WPS club goes forward with its ambition to challenge its competitors.
Melissa Tancredi provides a solid scoring threat for Athletica. She previously played for the (now defunct) Detroit Jaguars and Atlanta Silverbacks of the w-League, while playing a key role with Canada's national team.
Captain Lori Chalupny's leadership on the field is tantamount to the team's success. A hometown product, she previously played for River Cities Football Club, an amateur side which saw some success in the WPSL, before being signed with Athletica.
Brazilians Daniela and Francielle (full name: Francielle Manoel Alberto) provide reliability in the middle and the back for Barcellos's club. Daniela (full name: Daniela Alves Lima) previously played for Saad and Linköpings FC before playing for St. Louis.
In 2007, she helped Saad win the Copa do Brasil de Futebol Feminino 2007 (taking top scoring honors with 14 goals).
Goalkeeper Hope Solo needs no introduction. A battle-tested stopper that has been through adversity and success, shortchanges and generousness, struggles and triumph...she looks to propel St. Louis and put the "Athletic" in "Athletica."
Solo brings 52 international appearances to go with time spent with Olympique Lyonnais, the WUSA's Philadelphia Charge and Kopparbergs/Göteborg FC before signing with St. Louis.
One player to look out for would be Eniola Aluko. At age 22, with experience playing for Birmingham, Charlton Athletic and Chelsea, her pace could make her an important bench player for Athletica this season.
7. SKY BLUE FC
Manager: Ian Sawyers
Key Players: Collette McCallum, Heather O'Reilly, Sarah Walsh
Sky Blue FC, representing the New York/New Jersey area (and which plays their home matches at Rutgers University) is a team that may or may not sneak up on anyone (depending on who you talk to), but they do have a could of forwards and a midfielder that mean business.
The forwards are Heather O'Reilly and Sarah Walsh. And the player in the middle is Collette Mccallum.
O'Reilly previously played for the New Jersey Wildcats, and also played a key role in the USA's 2004 and 2008 Olympic runs. She has scored 19 goals in 83 caps.
Walsh, meanwhile, has played the role of striker for clubs in Australia, including Sydney FC, and Pali Blues, who took home the 2008 W-League Championship. As a member of the Matildas, she has 26 goals in 55 caps to her credit.
McCallum, however, will be someone to watch. When Sky Blue has a set piece come their way, her shots bode best from her left foot. It has been clutch during Pali's run to their title last season, and it has accounted for a good deal of her 26 goals in 110 appearances for the Matildas (U19, U-20 and senior).
And that wraps up my preseason rankings. With just hours away until the Inaugural Match kicks off, let's see what Women's Professional Soccer can bring to the world this Sunday on Victoria Street.
Let's roll! Oh, Gloria Gaynor...send help.