A tumultuous winter has left the American women's soccer landcape in flux: The pro league is dead and gone, a lot of the players have scattered overseas, and the maneuvering for position among clubs and rival leagues for whatever's next is well under way.
The impact will surely be felt in the USL W-League's Western Conference, which has picked up its share of big names -- with more possibly to come.
The W-League season kicked off this weekend, and two Western matches are featured -- one pitting SoCal clubs Pali Blues and L.A. Strikers on Sunday evening at Occidental College. Pali, a two-time league champion, is one of the clubs benefiting from the talent dispersal and thus one of the expected contenders to win the national amateur/semipro league's title.
The Blues have brought in one national-teamer -- defender Whitney Engen, from Rolling Hills Estates -- among a handful of WPS veterans, and more could be coming, with speculation centered on local stars Abby Wambach, Shannon Boxx and Amy Rodriguez.
The Seattle Sounders made the biggest splash, luring the U.S. team's biggest name (goalkeeper Hope Solo) and hottest property (Diamond Bar's Alex Morgan, whose boyfriend, Servando Carrasco, plays for the Sounders' MLS side), the No. 1 pick in the WPS draft (UCLA's Sydney Leroux), along with two more national-teamers (midfielder Megan Rapinoe and former L.A. Sol defender Stephanie Cox), among other pros.
“It's interesting. Kind of a feeding frenzy,” said L.A. Strikers head coach Demian Brown, who did not pursue WPS and U.S. national team stars. “I know a lot of W-League teams made real strong pushes for international and national team players, and almost by circumstance we didn't. I would have loved to have a Whitney Engen or a Hope Solo, but some of those women will only play in the league for a bit because of their commitment to the country.”
Most WPS vets will be available all season. The national-teamers, as Brown says, not so much. The London Olympics begin in mid-July, and preparations will be the top priority for the big stars the rest of the spring and into summer.
“I'm not worried about the full national team players [Seattle] signed,” said Charlie Naimo, who guided the Pali Blues to the 2008 and 2009 W-League titles, served as GM of the WPS's L.A. Sol in 2009 and returns to the women's game after taking last season off to concentrate on the L.A. Blues pro men's team, which he continues to run. “They're not going to be around for the playoffs. When I look at the league schedule versus the national team schedule, they're physically available for only a few league games. If they do play against us, we'll be excited. It's a great challenge for our team.”
The Vancouver Whitecaps, who reached the W-League title game two years ago and the semifinals last year, have a handful Canadian national-teamers but lost the core of its team. The Colorado Rapids, formerly the Force and now the third team in the league with an MLS affiliation, brought in WPS standout Brittany Bock, another former Sol player.
Everybody, it appears, will be improved, at least in the eight-team West, which features three Pacific Northwest teams (the third is in Victoria), two from Colorado and three teams from So Cal (the third is Santa Clarita Blue Heat). It might be the best division in the women's game, on par with W-League rival rival Women's Premier Soccer League's Elite Division, which has three WPS survivors.
A look at the three local teams:
Head coach: Demian Brown
Who are they: Second-year club that splintered off, kind of, from the Blue Heat, but they're under new ownership that has been proactive about getting involved in the community and building the roster.
Key players: F Hannah Beard, F Jamie Bell (Monrovia/La Salle HS and Loyola Marymount), M Samantha Johnson (Palmdale/Highland HS and USC), M/D Christina Murillo (Ojai/Nordhoff HS), D Vanessa Valentine (Cal State Fullerton).
Outlook: Brown, the head coach of Cal State Fullerton's women's program, has added of experience to a team that went 4-9-1 in the first season, bringing in four players that have played pro ball -- Bell and Beard included -- and rising Mexican national-teamer Murillo, a star at the University of Michigan. There's a strong foundation, anchored by captain Valentine, and a decent collection of college talent, including USC's Johnson, a youth national team veteran, Pepperdine's Katie Gallanes (Yorba Linda/Esperanza HS) and UC Irvine's Cami Privett, the Big West Freshman of the Year last fall. The plan is to continue building a solid organization, one that could go pro depending on the next step in the women's game's evolution, and compete with Pali, Santa Clarita, Seattle and Vancouver.
They said it: “We're a very athletic team. We'll be aggressive in attack,” Brown said. “We want to get after people and we want to get behind people, and with a mature and disciplined backline, we'll be able to handle the problems thrown at us.”
Home field: Patterson Field, Occidental College (Eagle Rock).
Head coach: Charlie Naimo
Who are they: Part of the Blues organization that features two men's teams -- USL Pro's L.A. Blues and PDL's Pali Blues -- and was half-owner of original WPS side L.A. Sol. Naimo guided the team to W-League championships in its first two seasons (2008 and 2009).
Key players: D Whitney Engen (Rolling Hills Estates/Peninsula HS), M Sarah Huffman, D Camille Levin (Newport Coast/Tarbut V'Torah Community Day School), M Nikki Washington, M Beth West.
Outlook: Naimo returns to the reins after taking last season off, adding Pali to his duties as head coach and general manager of the L.A. Blues. He's one of the most successful coaches in American women's soccer, with an 89-10-7 record, three championships and one runner-up finish in seven W-League seasons, plus a regular-season title as GM of the Sol. His Pali teams did not lose a game until the third season and head into this campaign with a 36-6-12 all-time record. He's put together one of his most talented and unquestionably his deepest team, with Engen possibly to be joined by other So Cal-based U.S. national-teamers. Levin was a first-round pick in this year's WPS draft, and Huffman, Washington, Liz Bogus and Christie Shaner are WPS veterans. The Blues also have some fine local college talent -- Pepperdine's Anisa Guajardo, Lynn Williams and Michelle Pao, Cal State Fullerton's Ann Marie Tangorra (Arcadia/Arcadia HS and Cal State L.A.) and Long Beach State's Lindsay Bullock (Manhattan Beach/Mira Costa HS). Anything less than a third W-League title will be a disappointment.
They said it: “This team could be one of the most competitive teams I've had from top to bottom,” Naimo said. “I can never say the most talent, because I had a team [in New Jersey] with Kelly Smith and Marinette Pichon and Anne Makinen and Carli Lloyd and Heather O'Reilly and Tobin Heath. But those teams didn't have a bench like this one. I'd be shocked if I see another team that's got that, because I've never seen it in this league.”
Home field: Palisades High School (Pacific Palisades).
SANTA CLARITA BLUE HEAT
Head coach: Charles Martinez
Who are they: Third-year club, now affiliated with NPSL men's side FC Santa Clarita, that won the Western Conference regular-season title in its second season and has aspirations of bigger things.
Key players: M Edite Fernandes, M Dinora Garza, G Cynthia Jacobo (Arleta/Granada Hills HS and Cal State Northridge), F Nadia Link (Rowland Heights/Walnut HS and Long Beach State), D Marlene Sandoval (Placentia/Valencia HS and Cal State Fullerton).
Outlook: Unfancied Blue Heat pulled out the Western title behind Portuguese star Fernandes and W-League Goalkeeper of the Year Jacobo, then lost to rival Vancouver in a playoff thriller after losing several starters, Fernandes included, to injury. They return key personnel and have added to the backline with Mexican national team veteran Sandoval and up front with Link, who was an All-American with 16 goals last fall at Long Beach State. Former Ecuadoran pro Martinez takes over for Coach of the Year finalist Fabian Sandoval, now an assistant coach with Pali, and he'll count primarily on Fernandes (“She can make the day brilliant [and will] have to carry the whole team on her shoulders”) and Garza, a rising Mexican national-team playmaker. The aim is to go further than last year.
They said it: “Expectations will be very, very high,” Martinez said. “We're going to have a really competitive team. This is one of the teams that is going to bring a lot of surprise from everyone. Expect a great season.”
Home field: Valencia High School.